'I didn't have time to stop': C-Train driver recounts horror of hitting pedestrian

The fear of striking a pedestrian is one that lurks in the minds of all train drivers — and the worst case came to pass Monday in Calgary after two people died after being hit by trains.

A six-year-old girl who had wandered away from home died after she was struck by a C-Train at the Somerset-Bridlewood station, and hours later, a man was struck and killed at Erlton.

Wanda Heater, who is now retired after driving C-Trains for about 20 years, has lived that nightmare.

'You can't prepare yourself'

"We hope it never happens. Nobody wants it to happen. And you can't prepare yourself for it. It's impossible," she said.

In the late 1980s, Heater was behind the controls of a train on 7th Avenue downtown when she saw an inebriated man step out directly onto the tracks.

"I saw him coming, but by the time I see him coming, it's too late, he's already off the curb and in front of the train," she said. 

"I hit him. I didn't have time to stop. He didn't die on the scene but he died that evening."

It's a daily occurrence. We can't deny people do walk out in front of the train every day. - Rick Ratcliff, Local 583 Amalgamated Transit Union president

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 583 president Rick Ratcliff said C-Train drivers are well-trained, but it's impossible to bring a 160-tonne, four-car train to an immediate halt.

"They don't stop that quickly. There's only so much you can do," Ratcliff said.

And, while not every incident ends as tragically as the two deaths on Monday, it's a frequent problem drivers have to face.

"It's a daily occurrence. We can't deny people do walk out in front of the train every day," he said.

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The union has approximately 3,000 members in Calgary. About 2,400 of them drive shuttles, full-length buses and C-Trains.

Ratcliff said support mechanisms are in place once a tragedy happens. Crisis management clinicians that specialize in critical incident response are sent out to support the drivers and staff at the stations involved. And after the fact, employees have access to confidential counselling and coaching services at no cost, 24-7.

Those supports have improved over the years, Ratcliff said.

"I have known at least one person that had a tragedy up at SAIT and got right back onto the train and drove.… I don't think policy would allow that to happen today."

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The transit union also recently negotiated an additional $750 per year in counselling benefits with registered psychologists for staff.

After an accident happens, Heater said, the driver will hop out to check on the victim and call rail control to send staff to handle the situation. In the case of the crash she was involved in, a police officer was nearby who rushed forward to provide first aid.

"I can remember everything that happened in vivid detail. But I don't dwell on it," said Heater, who said she experienced "a great deal of anxiety" and saw a psychologist for a while after the crash. "I can talk about it now, but it was a long time ago."

There are 65 level crossings in Calgary — spots where cars, cyclists or pedestrians cross the C-Train's path.

Between 1985 and last year, 74 people died at C-Train stations. Of those, 66 were pedestrians struck by trains, three were cyclists and five were killed in car-train collisions.

Two-thirds of those deaths are believed to be accidents, and 31 per cent were suicides.

There are proposals to try to make level crossings safer, Ratcliff said, but unfortunately some incidents are simply unavoidable tragedies. In those cases, all that can be done is to provide supports to those involved.

Ratcliff said he believes the driver of the train that hit the six-year-old child on Monday is on leave.

"He's dealing with a traumatic situation. The situation is absolutely tragic. Our hearts go out to all those people that are impacted," Ratcliff said.

With files from Jennifer Lee.