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I Just Heard a Thud: A Train Driver Explains How Hitting Someone Affected His Life

Every year 130 people are killed or seriously injured on Australia's train lines.

by Julian Morgans
22 January 2016, 1:40am

North Sydney Tunnel. Image via.

Gary Tower worked as a train driver on Sydney's suburban lines for over 40 years. His grandfather was a train driver, and so is his son, so it's fair to say driving trains was a big part of his life. But then one day, out of the blue, Gary hit someone on the tracks and everything changed.

Every year an estimated 130 people are killed or seriously injured on Australia's train lines. This doesn't include an estimated 150 people who take their own lives. Trains are as dangerous as mines or ship yards, but something about their urban ubiquity obscures this. And each time, the drivers deal with as much fallout as the families.

Australian filmmakers Tim Russell and Michael Wark wanted to highlight this situation, and have made a short on what train operators go through following a fatality. Gary Tower was a consultant on their film, The Driver.

We spoke to Gary about what he went through personally.

VICE: Hey Gary, can you take me through what happened?
Gary Tower: Well one night after peak-hour I had to take a train to Hornsby for repairs. I was following all the stations up to Chatswood and I don't know if this person was crossing the tracks or was urinating. I don't know what he was doing but I couldn't see anything. All I know is that as I came into Roseville station, I hit someone.

Do you think it was an accident?
I don't know, it was too fast. I didn't even see his face, I just heard a thud. I pulled up—which I shouldn't have done because I didn't warn anybody—and I jumped out and had a look. I was on a bend though and couldn't see anything. I hoped he'd just bounced off so I got back in the train and kept going.

I continued onto Hornsby and that's when they pulled me up to check the front of the train. I wasn't sure what to do so I went into the sheds. That's when the inspector from the rail management centre he told me he'd seen what had happened on CCTV. Then the supervisor confirmed that I'd hit an unknown person.

That's horrible. How did you feel?
I just sat there, sat there and let it play through my mind. Then the police came up and did all the intoxications tests, which I passed. They asked me if I was alright. I was a bit of a mess.

What was the part that kept going through your head?
That he was someone's son, someone's husband, and someone's father. Even now I hear about fatalities around the network and it triggers the memory. I toss and turn thinking about it. Even as I go to a counsellor it's very hard to get it out of my system. I would go for a couple of days without thinking about it then suddenly it'd be back.

How has your family helped you through this?
My wife, she's been very supportive. She understands the situation and she doesn't ask too many questions. A lot of my workmates have been concerned too and call me up and ask how I am, which is good but sometimes I don't want to talk.

Did you go back to work?
Yeah I came back, drove a couple of trains, but I found the job hard. It changed my perspective on driving through the platforms, especially during the mornings and afternoon peak times when it's full of people. You start thinking, what are they going to do? So I went on holidays and said that's it, I'm done. I put in my papers and that was it.

So you're retired now?
Yep, for about 12 months.

What do you think you've learned from this experience?
Maybe that it could've happened another night or the following hour. It's an uncertain future and there's nothing I can do about that. I hope I get to my father's age, he passed at 91—but then again, I don't know what tomorrow brings or even the next hour.

If you were talking to another train driver who has been through this situation, what advice could you give ?
There is no advice you can give really. All you can say is that if you feel bad about it go to counselling. I went to the Coroners Court and had face-to-face counselling and the lady was very, very good. We had coffee, cleared the air, and talked about a lot of things. That's the only way I can think of.

What message do you want put out there for the public?
Just for the public to be aware. When you're around the rail corridor it's very dangerous. It's not just the family who suffers, it's the driver and the poor guard. For us it's an ongoing thing, it's there in our minds. It's something you never forget.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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