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Via was powerless to dodge disaster in Ottawa, veteran engineer says

Police tape marks off the scene where a Via Rail train collided with an Ottawa bus in the southern suburb of Barrhaven on Sept. 18, 2013.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

When disaster looms down the track, there's little a train engineer can do – apply the brakes, then hope.

That was the only option facing Paul Proudlock, 46, about two years ago along his freight route near Bowmanville, Ont., when a woman climbed down the hill toward the tracks. Mr. Proudlock couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"I thought she was just running down the hill to cross the track, and she wasn't. She came down. It was the most surreal moment. She – very daintily – almost curtsied and sat down between the rails. Then she laid down, and as soon as I saw her lay down, I put it into emergency [braking]," the train engineer recalls. "And I still went another eighth of a mile. So the whole train travelled over her, and by the time my conductor got back, I asked him what emergency services I should call for, and he said none were necessary."

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Mr. Proudlock still gets choked up recalling the impact, after which he took three days off. He remembers it every time he passes the site. "If I could change the laws of physics for a moment, I would have done it that day," he says.

Stopping a train takes time and distance – even with brakes fully locked. Mr. Proudlock's biggest fear is seeing a school bus on the tracks ahead. His second biggest fear is seeing a fuel tanker. He's always on edge around the time schools let out. "There are crossings on the [rail] line I do run that, given the time of day, I hold my breath a little," he says.

Aboard Wednesday morning's Toronto-bound Via Rail train – which was struck in Ottawa by a double-decker bus in a crash that killed six people – Mr. Proudlock believes there was little the engineers could have done. The Via engineers haven't spoken publicly yet, but Mr. Proudlock and union leader Rex Beatty expect they know what they are feeling.

"I can't imagine themselves not asking the question: What could I have done differently? That's the big question," says Mr. Proudlock, who has worked as a locomotive engineer for 23 years. "Just think about how shiny a wheel is and how shiny a rail is and those interacting. To try and slow anything down? Train wheels sit on the area of a dime. So even with every wheel brake locked, you're on the surface area of a dime just skidding along the shiniest things. There's nothing they could have done, and now they've got to try and reconcile that within themselves."

Engineers often see people trying to beat a train at a crossing and they can do little more than hold their breath, says Mr. Beatty, national president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union.

"Have you ever come up to a stop sign where there's ice and you slam your brakes on but you're not stopping? You're still sliding, you think, 'Oh God, I hope I don't run out into this intersection!' That's what it's like. You're just crossing your fingers and saying, 'Please stop, please stop,' " he says. "There's very little you can do. It's a very sickening feeling."

Via Rail says there were no serious injuries aboard the train involved in the crash. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is leading the investigation, and the cause of the crash is undetermined. The bus driver and five passengers died. But Mr. Beatty says train engineers often struggle after collisions – coping with a sense of helplessness and reviewing what, if anything, they could have done to prevent a tragedy.

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"What happened to them is going to set in, and there's other effects to these people – long-lasting effects," he says.

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