‘It looks like the railroad is asking for you to say thank you’

‘It looks like the railroad is asking for you to say thank you’

by Jessica Lussenhop and Topher Sanders

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As powerful railroad companies race to maximize profits through efficiency, safety is left behind.

Chris Cole lay on his back in the gravel beside the railroad tracks, staring up at the overcast sky above Godfrey, Illinois. He could not see below his waist — a co-worker had thrown himself over Cole’s body to spare him the sight, although the man couldn’t keep himself from repeating: “Oh my god, Chris. Oh my god.” So, instead of looking down where his legs and feet should have been, Cole looked up. What’s going to happen to my family? he remembered thinking.

Moments earlier, Cole — a 45-year-old brakeman, engineer and conductor with over two decades of experience working on the railroads — had attempted a maneuver he’d done many times: hoisting himself onto a locomotive as it moved past him. Although dangerous, Cole’s employer, Kansas City Southern Railway Company, did not prohibit workers from climbing on and off equipment that was moving at a “walking speed.” In fact, the company went from banning the practice in the mid-’90s to steadily increasing the permissible speed at which workers could attempt to climb onboard, a change other freight companies would also adopt in keeping with the spirit of a modern strategy to move cargo as quickly as possible.

As he pulled himself up onto the rolling train, Cole said he felt something strike his right shoulder — a rectangular metal sign close to the tracks that read “DERAIL.” He lost his balance and slipped beneath the wheels of a graffiti-covered boxcar. The train crushed and nearly severed his right foot and his left leg at the knee.

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