Lorraine DePugh, who operates commuter trains for New Jersey Transit, sees people taking risks near the tracks.

New Jersey Transit commuter train operator Lorraine DePugh

Fourteen years ago Lorraine DePugh switched from driving New Jersey Transit buses to operating their commuter trains. During her eighteen-month long training, she learned how to troubleshoot when a train breaks down and was asked how she would deal with a fatality. She realized that for any engineer with NJ Transit – the largest statewide transportation system in the country – experiencing a fatality was a possibility, but she was unprepared for the residual emotional shock that follows.

“Last year I was operating the first train of the morning at 4:00 am,” she says. “It was dark, and I saw something ahead on the tracks but wasn't sure what it was. One hundred feet away I noticed a guy lying across the tracks, I saw his shorts and white socks.” As DePugh realized it was a person she felt an adrenaline rush, activated the emergency brakes and frantically sounded her horn, but it was too late. “I just ran over him, there was no sound but I knew it had happened.”

Immediately following a fatal incident, the shaken engineer remains seated, waiting for the train crew's investigation, the emergency people and coroner, and the arrival of a relief engineer. The delay takes hours but for DePugh and fellow engineers, the effects are lasting. “The person making the decision to cross the tracks, they don't think about anyone else,” DePugh says. “It's a selfish thing because they need to get somewhere faster, and that decision affects a lot of people.” Despite ample warnings from NJ Transit – billboards, signs, lights and gates around tracks and crossings – DePugh says commuters rushing to and from that train, often wearing noise-blocking earbuds, are an ongoing problem for engineers trying to make safety their top priority.

A divorced mother of two grown sons, DePugh can repair a washing machine or tile a bathroom floor as easily as she fixes a stalled locomotive. She feels rail safety should be something every parent includes when giving children basic safety lessons.  “It's something you learn in kindergarten: red lights mean stop and green mean go,” she says. “Is the short cut worth it? How do you get someone to understand that it's not safe to walk on tracks, and that the one second you take to stop when the gates come down could save your life?”

NJ Transit, in partnership with the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety and Operation Lifesaver, offers an innovative Driver Education Safety Program to supplement existing high school driver education curriculum. Visit their teen driver safety page for more information.


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