CBC Investigates

'I'm lucky I didn't kill anyone': retired CN engineer says

Train engineers can witness multiple deaths resulting in high levels of PTSD, according to union.

Train engineers can witness multiple deaths resulting in high levels of PTSD, according to union

After a career spanning 32 years on the rails, John Wever reflects on how fortunate he was, to have spent 18 years driving a locomotive without ever having killed a human being. 0:36

John Wever is confident he is one of the lucky few driving freight cars along the busy rail lines in southwestern Ontario who has never killed anyone.

"Most of the guys I've worked with have," explains the newly retired Canadian National Railway engineer who drove trains through London and across Ontario for 18 years and has witnessed countless close calls.

"I know of someone who has killed at least 14 people and another [colleague] who killed nine." 

Standing at a crossing in London's downtown where he travelled countless times during his career, Wever recounts a dark and rarely discussed reality for anyone sitting high above in the locomotive: hitting and killing someone.

"People try to beat the train [but] sadly that isn't always the case," said Wever.

Motorists, pedestrians involved in accidents

A Canadian Pacific freight train approaches a level crossing on Richmond Street in London, Ont. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Fatalities are regular occurrences along the tracks involving both motorists and pedestrians.

Two women were killed southwest of London at in 2016 when their car was hit at a rural crossing that did not have safety gates. 

In London, 11-year-old Kendra Cameron was killed when she tried to run across the tracks at a busy intersection in the city's east-end in 2012.

Wever has seen many anxious pedestrians cutting across the tracks, including parents pushing baby carriages, as well as speedsters driving around the gates to avoid waiting for the train to pass.

He explains it can be almost impossible to sound the whistle or hit the brakes to avoid a crash when a train is moving at high speeds or when it is heavily loaded. 

Psychological trauma

John Wever, a retired CN rail employee, say's he's lucky he's never killed anyone throughout his career, which spanned up to three decades. (Colin Bulter/CBC)

A representative with Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, the union representing CN and CP employees, estimates that almost all train drivers involved in an accident suffer some level of psychological trauma, with 50 per cent expected to develop PTSD.

Ontario vice-chairman Russ Archibald believes part of that comes from frequently being the first responder on the scene in rural areas.

"We encourage our workers, even if they have an inkling that there is psychological damage when they're involved in a critical incident, to seek help," Archibald said.

But seeking help can be hard, another rail conductor told CBC London. 

"I went back to work the next day," said Ray Vigneux, a former Canadian Pacific Rail conductor, who was involved in a fatal accident four decades into his career.

"Perform and grieve later" - Ray Vigneux, retired CP rail conductor

Teamsters has noticed an increase in recent years of railway employees seeking psychological help following an accident, however it hopes the public will also consider personal safety when approaching a moving train.

Wever is driving home a similar message. 

"Don't put your life on the line when you're going to meet a train," he said.

"The train is always going to win."