In “The End of the Line,” which appears in the July issue of Los Angeles magazine, Charles Fleming writes about pedestrians dying on the region’s train tracks. Many are killed by accident—people crossing the tracks often underestimate how fast trains are moving—but it’s the suicides that are especially haunting for the people who operate the trains. Fleming talks with executive editor Matthew Segal about the story.
Death by train—what sparked your interest in the topic?
I have a friend who works for a train company, and I bumped into him the same day that I heard a radio report about a locomotive striking a horse and rider and killing both. Listening to his account of the collision turned my head around. I’d only thought about the horror for the man and his animal, but my friend talked about the trauma to the engineer and told me that some of his engineer acquaintances had had multiple such incidents.
Easy for me to say since I’m an editor here, but that is one of the surprises about the story: While this is ostensibly a story about people dying on the tracks, in many ways it’s about the suffering of the people who run the trains.
That's where I started on my reporting, talking to train people about the horrifying powerlessness of the engineer who knows he is about to strike someone and knows there's nothing he can do about it.
Because, of course, trains take a long time to stop. The accident scenes can be particularly gory. The people you interview seem haunted by them.
In fact, it wasn’t the engineers who had the most haunting stories to tell but the conductors and other train personnel. The engineer is at the controls when the accident occurs, but it is the conductor who usually has to make what they call “the long walk” to locate the body and determine whom to call—the paramedics or the coroner. These men and women saw the worst of it, from the mangled or dismembered bodies to the victim who was still alive and suffering.
James Salazar, an Amtrak engineer, has been involved in five deaths during his 14 years in the rail industry. That’s more deaths than many police officers see.
James came from a train family and was a third-generation engineer. His father knew to counsel him, after his first incident, to be ready for sleeplessness, depression, or sudden bursts of anger. His dad told him that even if he didn’t think those symptoms stemmed from the incident, they actually did.
You interviewed more than a few rail employees with family members who are in the same line of work. One doesn’t hear of that sort of generational continuity much anymore. Was it just the older guys you interviewed who followed in their fathers’ footsteps?
It's one of those specialized occupations—like police work or firefighting or soldiering—imbued with something that gets passed on from generation to generation.
I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but you even managed to find someone—Ron Iseli—who jumped in front of a subway car and managed to survive.
Ron really wanted to end his life and planned his suicide carefully. When he regained consciousness, his reaction was not relief but despair: “I can't even do this right,” he thought. If you were to ask Ron why he wasn't killed, he would probably say he believes that fate chose a different path for him.
As Iseli points out, the Metropolitan Transit Authority would have been hard-pressed to prevent him from trying to kill himself. On the other hand, there have been plenty of critics who’ve said the MTA could do a better job preventing accidental deaths involving pedestrians.
The transportation safety expert Najmedin Meshkati has been particularly critical of the new Expo Line, which has street-level crossings near schools and other pedestrian-heavy areas. He predicts a huge spike in accidental train deaths and suicides.
It’s unclear how many pedestrian deaths are truly by accident and how many are suicides.
The determination usually hinges on intention: Was the man sitting on the tracks, wearing headphones and high on heroin, intending to kill himself or not? Most engineers, most of the time, say they know. Often the last thing the victim does before impact is look up and lock eyes with the engineer. It was my hope in writing this story that someone who might choose suicide by train as an efficient way to die would, having read about Ron Iseli, James Salazar, and the others, think otherwise.
You travel a lot and have ridden plenty of trains in your lifetime. Has the story changed the way you look at railroads?
Entirely. It's changed my perspective. I once read that, when asked to imagine themselves in a scene that involved torture, 98 percent of test subjects automatically imagined themselves as torture victims, not torturers. If you ask someone to think about suicide by train, I'm sure that percentage would imagine the nightmare of being struck by the train—not the nightmare of driving it.