Observed impact on Canadian railway crew members

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Origins of the project

This study was commissioned by Transport Canada in 2009, as part of a larger project to assess the nature and extent  of railway suicides in Canada and propose prevention strategies. Data collection took place in 2010 with the collaboration of the Teamsters of Canada, Rail Conference (Union) and class one railway carriers across the country.

Objectives of the project

The main objective of the project is to understand the impact of train fatalities on crew members in order to identify ways to better intervene to reduce the negative effects.

Research Methodology

Retrospective interviews were conducted with crew members who had experienced at least one suicide during the course of their career. These interviews were conducted face to face or over the telephone.

Interviews included questions asking the crew member to  describe the suicides and other fatalities they experienced, close calls and non-fatal incidents that were notable to the interviewee, the interventions and actions of emergency services called to the scene, the intervention and actions of the supervisor and railway company officials in the aftermaths of the incidents, the consequences of the incident (short and long term), help provided and recommendations made by the interviewees for better help for them and how to prevent suicides on the railway network.

Interviews were audio taped, transcribed and analysed using a qualitative analysis methodology.


Interviewees came from across Canada

Province Number % of sample
New Brunswick 1 2.5
Saskatchewan 1 2.5
British Columbia 2 5.0
Alberta 4 10.0
Manitoba 9 22.5
Québec 9 22.5
Ontario 10 35.0

40 interviews were included in the final analysis, describing 132 incidents:

  • 48 accidents
  • 55 suicides
  • 20 non fatal accidents 
  • cases of found bodies
  • 4 close calls

Overall, the participants had a mean of 4.5 incidents during their career, ranging from one to 22.
These incidents took place between the early nineteen seventies and 2010.
The mean seniority in the industry of the interviewees was 28.6 years at the time of interview.

Observed impact of railway fatalities

The description of the observed impacts on Canadian crew members follows the description of potential impacts .


Only five participants mentioned that they experienced no reaction after a fatality and things were back to normal very quickly. They also are the ones who felt that going back to work quickly helped them return to normal.

Short term (within hours and days)

The most common reactions in the moments and hours following the impact (after the initial reaction at impact) were feelings of guilt, anger/irritability, feeling of detachment, exhaustion, being upset, emotional upheaval, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares.
These symptoms were reported to quickly recede within the following days.

Other effects were mentioned, such as intense disbelief or empathy for the victim. These feelings can be associated with longer term impacts.

A very intense short term reaction can be a strong predictor of long term effects of incidents. Those who experienced high levels of stress, intense immediate shock, strong feelings on site and in the following days are more at risk to develop longer term symptoms, diagnosed problems and difficulties.

Stress and non diagnosed effects

All participants in the present study experienced at least one symptom that is indicative of stress after the incident.  This contrasts with Malt et al. (3), who found one third of drivers with stress symptoms in Sweden.  

Previous studies have shown that the impact of suicides and accidents on train crews tends to diminish over time (3, 4, 6, 7).  This reduction in symptoms occurs for both accidents and suicides.  People “learn to live with it.” However, we have found that after the initial shock recedes, there are still mid and long-term effects (after 3 months) for 40% of the incidents.  The impact usually manifests itself in the form of flashbacks in situations that recall the incident.  They can also be observed in dreams, in hyper- vigilant behaviour and generalized anxiety. None of these effects seem to reach the level where a mental disorder can be diagnosed but they still result in significant suffering and impairment to crew members Sub threshold symptoms .

Non diagnosed effects can also be observed in symptoms associated with Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).  Most of those interviewed in the present study showed signs of ASD although they might not have displayed enough symptoms to qualify for an ASD diagnosis.  The most common responses identified at the time of impact were: rush of adrenaline, horror/shock, feelings of helplessness, feeling upset, a sense of disbelief as well as anger.  Feelings of responsibility are also common at this stage.  These feelings are common immediately after the incident but generally disappear between a week and a month following the event.


Of the 40 train crews interviewed, seven reported being diagnosed with PTSD, which is similar to Farmer et al. (5), who found 16% in England.  but more than Theorell (6) who found 4% of PTSD in their driver sample in Sweden.

Cumulative effects

Fatalities rarely occur only once in the life of a conductor or an engineer. The mean number of fatalities experienced by the participants was 4.5, ranging from one to 22.
There appeare to be four ways of handling more than one fatality:

  1. Some people responded to one incident at a time and did not show signs of a cumulative effect. Once the effect of the first incident had time to recede, the next one was experienced as separate.
  2. A majority of respondents, on the other hand, reported a cumulative effect. Fifteen of them said that the more fatalities they were involved in, the harder it was to return to normal.
  3. A small number of participants said that the accumulation of incidents had hardened them.
  4. Some said that having had previous incidents helped them understand what was happening during an incident. This knowledge and familiarity may have diminished the traumatic effect of the subsequent incidents.

We found that of the 7 persons with PTSD, only two developed PTSD after their first fatality. The others developed PTSD after their second to seventh incident. In two cases, the repercussions of the last event lead the person to stop working completely.
Cumulative effects are not always easy to identify. They may appear as long term mood shifts, in changing perceptions about life or work, flash backs in varied circumstances, general edginess, as well as fatigue and long recovery periods for minor incidents. Another sign of a cumulative effect is loss of commitment to work and hope that they will live to retire.

Cumulative effects have been documented before (Malt et al;., 1993, Karlehagen et al., 1993, Theorell et al., 1992), but they were limited to ASD and PSTD. In this study, we found that the cumulative effect can be insidious for crew members, affecting them in more subtle ways in the long term (for example in changing moods, fatigue, etc.) that do not necessarily appear when only Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are measured.<

Coexistence of other events

Personal life events, such as bereavement or a divorce, occurring around the time of the incident will add to the difficulty crew members experience. These events and their emotional impact get intertwined with the fatalities and the emotions experienced and memory of both tend to be linked together. Remembering one brings up the other, increasing the extent of emotional turmoil. This co-occurrence of events were not common in our sample, but those who experienced both work related and personal events in the same period took longer to recover.

Delayed onset

Although it is documented in the trauma literature (2), none of the interviewees reported delayed development of PTSD after fatalities. In our sample, the strongest predictor of long term symptoms was the presence of an intense immediate reaction after the event. However, several interviewees described very strong subsequent reactions to lesser events. Close calls or non fatal incidents, which previously had little impact, induced a traumatic reaction after the traumatic even t. This could account for delayed symptoms, where a later stimulus triggers the traumatic symptoms that did not develop at the time of the main event.

Accidents versus suicides

Generally, we found that suicides induced more short-term reactions (partly due to the anger we discussed before).  We also noted differences in the long term effects.  Of the 7 persons who were diagnosed with PTSD, 6 were involved in suicides (15% of the 40 crew members, 10.9% of suicides).  
Participants were asked to reflect upon the difference it made to be involved in a suicide versus an accident.  Whatever the type of incident, the initial reactions are of shock and pain.  However, after these initial, almost physiological reactions, crew members developed different attitudes, sometimes quite contradictory.  

The intent of the person
Knowing that the person chose to put himself in front of their train seemed to make it easier for some crew members to come to terms with the incident.  This knowledge alleviated their sense of responsibility because they felt there was nothing they could have done differently.  They tended to get angry, which is an emotion they found easier to deal with.

The avoidability of the incident
When the crew member thought that the incident could have been avoided it was more difficult to deal with.  Crew members tended to get upset with those who could have prevented it, whether it was a reckless driver or a psychiatrist who let a patient out of hospital.  They tended to see accidents as more avoidable than suicides, in part because of the notion of intent, but also in part because of the timing of the events.  They tended to think in terms of “what if...” and some crew members obsessively wondered how an accident could have been avoided.  They might also feel more responsible for the incident, even if they were operating according to regulations at the time of impact.

The ability to make sense of what happened
Being able to understand why things happened seemed to play a part in lessening the trauma.  When drivers were faced with a suicide that they were able to understand, it made it easier to deal with.  Making sense of things helped them come to terms with the event.