If you find yourself in a crisis situation, the SMART Members Assistance Program (MAP) is available to help. Please call 877-884-6227 for free and confidential assistance. Your employer also may have an in-house employee assistance program (EAP) available.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023, is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day in the United States. Until personally impacted, I had always believed that PTSD was reserved for the men and women who had served in the military and that it was a symptom that only those who had seen combat were capable of getting. I was wrong.

Working in the transportation industry can be and often is a stress-filled lifestyle. This is especially true for those of us who are unfortunate enough to have had a critical incident (CI). I’ve been involved in not one but two in my career as a railroad conductor and engineer. Both CIs in my career have been suicides.

Yet such incidents are not limited to people working freight rail. Our bus and transit members deal with road and rail accidents themselves whether it be with another vehicle or a pedestrian. There’s no shortage of headlines in our union’s daily news emails talking about people doing their jobs who are then subjected to unexpected violence by a passenger or even a stranger. While the medical treatment may be completed, the psychological effects of these incidents can linger long after.

In the two Cis I’ve experienced, the train I was conducting was traveling too fast for anyone to have reacted to prevent the incident. Both times, it was a matter of how the crew would cope in the aftermath, rather than if it was going to occur. And in both circumstances, I told myself that logically it wasn’t my fault and that I was fine.

On that last point, I was very wrong.

The carrier I work for has a good Federal Railroad Administration-mandated Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and in both circumstances, I was contacted and asked how I was doing. Both times I told them that I was doing just fine and that I was more worried about my engineer or in one case my trainee. I wasn’t lying to these EAP representatives. I truly believed I was OK. The truth of the matter is that everyone processes these events differently. I was actually looking forward to getting on my next train following those incidents and getting those situations behind me.

Over time, the repercussions of what I had witnessed made themselves more evident. What I had not realized is that I was affected and that it changed my personality. The best way I can describe my situation pre-PTSD diagnosis is that my fuse had been cut very short. It did not take much to set me off. I had become temperamental and volatile at work and at home.

Back on the road working, I had plenty of time alone with my thoughts. Hotel rooms at the away-from-home terminal began to feel more like prison cells than anything. While there, I wanted to get home, and when I was at home, I was more anxious than ever before about when I was going to get called back to work. In essence, I was no longer comfortable in my own skin and was always looking for the exits.

Drinking became a part of my everyday routine. What I realize now is that my anxiety about getting to either end of the railroad was that my reward was 10 hours that I could drink myself numb. I was running from something, but unaware that I was doing it. 

Eventually, this caught up to me. I was second out in the hotel, and as I was going to bed, my phone rang with a surprise call to work. The crew that had been first out caught a break and got an unlikely deadhead home. As a result, I got called in significantly earlier than I had calculated. When I got to the terminal I failed a random pre-trip blow-and-go sobriety test.

It was the wake-up call I needed.

As part of the path back to reinstatement, I needed to meet with a drug and alcohol counselor. Through my conversation with this man at a coffee shop, the two suicides came up in conversation. My counselor was intrigued by that situation and asked a couple of follow-up questions. When he diagnosed me with PTSD, I was confused, and ironically pissed off. I told him that I disagreed with his point of view.

At an appointment with my regular family doctor, he asked how things were going at work and I came clean about my suspension. I told him about having to go to a substance counselor. When he asked how that was going, I told him that I didn’t like the guy because “he thinks I’m crazy.” After telling him about the situation, my doctor confirmed that he also was diagnosing me with PTSD.

Since I’d been slapped in the face with this twice now, I did some research on the topic. As it turns out my “short fuse” volatility, anxiety and the spike in drinking checked a lot of the boxes for PTSD.  The tendencies that I thought were just me being an old, grizzled railroader turned out to be a diagnosable psychological problem.

What’s more important than being diagnosable, is that PTSD is also treatable. I have started to see a psychiatrist, and my goals have changed. Now I try to get better and heal rather than just subconsciously trying to numb myself and run out the clock until I can do it again.

I am writing this to encourage as many of our members as possible not to feed into the idea that we aren’t supposed to be affected by what we see on the job or the lifestyle we live working in the transportation industry. PTSD is a real thing. We have all discussed the need to defend our quality of life. At its root that is what I’m asking you to consider.

Our lives are dictated by our work assignments. That won’t change any time soon. What can change is that you can stop “sucking it up” and living with the anxiety of PTSD. If you have had a critical incident on the job and now live with heightened anxiety, or you sometimes surprise yourself with how harsh the things you say and do are or feel like a third-party observer with no control over your own reactions, please take it from a colleague who has been where you are.

It is difficult to swallow our pride and admit that you might be struggling to work through PTSD. It sure was for me. But I’m glad I was forced to deal with it, and I hope we all can use this June 27th’s PTSD Awareness Day as a point to reflect on how you might be coping with any CI you may have experienced.

If any of this sounds familiar and makes you as uncomfortable as I was when diagnosed, I personally ask that you use the links below to look into the services that are available to help.

It can get better, and you deserve better.

This column was submitted by a SMART-TD member.

“From the Ballast” is an open column for SMART Transportation Division rail members to state their perspective on issues related to the railroad industry. Members of the union are encouraged to submit content by emailing to news_TD@smart-union.org. Columns are published at the union’s discretion and may be published in the SMART TD newspaper.

The term “getting railroaded” has its origins in the 1800s. Landowners would use it when the rail companies stole land in order to lay down new track. It has evolved these days to describe generally being cheated or bullied. Unfortunately, the originators of the term who perfected the practice are still bullying, but now it is focused on their own employees.

Today’s corporate railroads may not be stealing land, but they are stealing our jobs, our time and our safety. With Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), the number of railroad jobs has dropped 30%. Thousands of jobs were done away with even as we kept our country going through a pandemic. More were eliminated as the carrier executives chased an operating ratio that enriched the shareholders and railroad owners.

As headcount diminished, time was stolen as those still employed were forced to work more hours with new attendance policies that leave little time for family or rest. This led to a worker exodus that even further decreased employees and time.

This all resulted in workers’ safety being stolen. Pushing workers to the point of fatigue and making doctor’s appointments all but impossible to schedule have hurt workers’ health. Cutting inspection times and maintenance has led to more breakdowns and derailments. Growing train lengths have increased these dangers as well. In short, workers are all still getting railroaded.

So, what do we do about it?

Some have conceded that these companies and their lobbyists are too powerful. This mentality is understood, but we’ve seen challenges like these defeated before. Child labor, segregation and unsafe working conditions were all beaten back by unions. There’s no doubt that the odds seemed insurmountable at the time and yet they overcame them.

They did this because they had one big thing going for them. They were on the right side. Well, so are railroaders. In the last few years, we have seen customers, the public, news media and even politicians from both parties start talking about the dangers of PSR and one-person rail crews. Five years ago, it was ridiculous to think that major media outlets would have reports on these issues or even be concerned about, but they have and they are and progress is being made.

This happened because railroaders spoke out. They wrote emails, met with representatives and even used social media to spread the word. If all of us, together, made an effort to do the same, we could win this battle.

So, please use the resources that are available — take some time and write an email to your representative. Talk with leaders at a City Council meeting. Make some handouts and pin them on a board. Go to a union meeting and suggest something to inform your community. Do some philanthropy and talk about railroad issues. Put up an informative table at a festival. Do something to fight back. It’s hard to quiet 100,000 voices ringing. Every person who learns about this corporate greed and corruption is another crack in their armor. It’s easy to give up, but let’s stand strong together and let them know that the days of getting “railroaded” are now over.

This article was submitted by an active member of SMART Transportation Division Local 445 (Niota, Ill.) who works for BNSF and chose to remain anonymous. We thank him for his submission and his continued advocacy in union matters!

“From the Ballast” is an open column for SMART Transportation Division rail members to state their perspective on issues related to the railroad industry. Members of the union are encouraged to submit content by emailing to news_TD@smart-union.org. Columns are published at the union’s discretion and may be published in the SMART-TD newspaper.

Most of us with any amount of time on the railroad have the shared experience of feeling the hot seat that comes with a company discipline hearing. These kangaroo courts are not set up to be fair and impartial fact-finding missions.  As we all know, they are an exercise in intimidation meant to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible. If they can add the bonus of humiliation on top of the penalty they’re threatening to impose, it makes the experience so much better.  

The U.S. Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works’ hearing March 9 put Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw in our shoes for once (and not that pair of work boots he acquired to look like a relatable guy when the cameras were filming him in East Palestine, Ohio). For once, the so-called “big boss” got to experience the discomfort and frustration of when people in authority demand an explanation and accountability. It was very reminiscent of how we feel in similar situations when we’re getting grilled by railroad managers like Shaw.  

It was hard to feel any sympathy. Yet while every senator seemed poised to force Shaw’s hand, each stopped just short of going in for the kill. Those who did ask hard questions were given lukewarm half-answers — snippets from the well-rehearsed lines that he has been using since the derailment happened. He appeared like he was simply spinning his greatest hits album of the soundbites that scored highest in a focus group. 

Based on the fact that the hearing went for over a third of the time a rail crew has off between shifts these days, most members likely didn’t have the opportunity to watch. In an effort to put a bow on it, the hearing broke down like this: 

CEO Shaw was asked about as many questions as you could fit into the 3-hour, 19-minute hearing but somehow managed to answer every one of them with one of the following responses on a loop.  

  • I have only been the CEO since May 2022. 
  • I am personally determined to make this right for the community of East Palestine. 
  • Norfolk Southern will be in East Palestine tomorrow, next month, next year, and ten years from now. 
  • We created a new website in response to the disaster. 

After seeing his performance, (and that was exactly what it was) I would offer Mr. Shaw some advice. First, he should hire a new acting coach to help him get through these situations. His entitled angry Wall Street CEO reality leaked through the repentant empathetic “Mother Teresa” persona that he was trying to adopt before the panel as penance for the misery that’s occurred in East Palestine.  

Second, I would advise him to learn the value of direct answers. He was asked yes/no questions time and time again and offered answers that went on for minutes at a time and somehow did not include either of those two words to definitively answer what was asked.  

Since the senators were allotted a limited amount of time for their questions, Shaw was successful in running out the clock by playing a version of corporate prevent defense. But where he succeeded in not being pinned down to anything that could be held up in court as a commitment, he failed to move the needle in the court of public opinion. His wishy-washy answers, devoid of authenticity, full of unwillingness to commit to substantive industry change away from Precision Scheduled Railroading, and the recurring theme of “we’ll consider throwing more money at the problem we created,” clearly angered the senators on the Committee of Environment and Public Works. We will see what effect they have on the all-important shareholders of Norfolk Southern. His appearance did nothing to inspire the confidence of SMART Transportation Division.  

Among some of the questions from the senators that Shaw artfully dodged were: 

  • What did NS learn from the 20th derailment that resulted in a chemical release since 2015 that it didn’t learn from the 5th, the 10th, or the 15th? — Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) 
  • Will you lead the rail industry in getting away from the business model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading? — Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) 
  • Was the owner of the rail car in question who is responsible for its maintenance and contents involved in the decision to vent it and burn off the contents of it? — Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) 

One last highlight came from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). It wasn’t posed as a question, but in Whitehouse’s comments, he stated that, “Mr. Shaw, the news is reporting that there has just been a significant derailment in Alabama of one of your trains. I certainly hope that all of your team and anyone in the vicinity is safe and well. You may need to look into that.” 

Though the net result of the hearing was minimal, CEO Shaw came out of it looking highly frustrated, but less than trustworthy. He was clearly uncomfortable being held accountable for the unintended but inevitable consequences of his company’s embrace of PSR.  

What left me with an uncomfortable feeling was that Shaw continually framed all the promises made to East Palestine and surrounding communities as “personal commitments.” As anyone on the rail can tell you, nothing is true or real in this industry until it is. There is no such thing as a guarantee. With all of the commitments coming from Shaw personally, it raises the question of what happens if NS fires him?  

Likely, he’ll float away comfortably from East Palestine on his golden parachute, make a comfortable landing elsewhere — maybe as an industry lobbyist — and the Ohio village residents he testified to have such an affinity with would be left holding a bag full of empty promises, just like every one of us railroaders with wallets full of unfulfilled IOUs from Class I managers. 

Daniel Banks is a Class I certified conductor and government affairs representative for the SMART Transportation Division.