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Seeking answers through tragedy

railwaysBy Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

In the City of Oshawa, April 27 to May 3 has been named Rail Safety Week. In an effort to improve rail safety in the city, The Oshawa Express takes a look at one of the biggest unanswered questions around rail safety: pedestrian safety at railway level crossings.


Janice Hicks lost her son Jacob after he was struck by a CN freight train at the level rail crossing on Wilson Road in Oshawa.

In 2012, 16-year-old Jacob Hicks was struck and killed by a CN freight train on the level crossing at Wilson Road, south of Bloor Street East.

No pedestrian safety measures are in place at this crossing, and since his death, Jacob’s mother Janice has been fighting to see a change.

Information for this story comes from interviews with Janice, facts from Transport Canada and the Durham Regional Police reports on Jacob’s death.

The Accident

The railway crossing signals were flashing, the electronic arms were down, cars were stopped.

It’s unclear whether Jacob Hicks saw the flashing lights of the approaching train or if he was distracted, but unlike the cars, he didn’t stop.

On Feb. 13, 2012, Jacob, heading home from his co-op placement, walked into the path of a CN freight train at the level crossing on Wilson Road. The collision would leave him clinging to life between the railway tracks.

Several witnesses, those sitting in their cars waiting for the train to pass, told the Durham Regional Police they saw Jacob approaching the tracks, his head down, looking at what appeared to be a cellphone or MP3 player in his hand.

“I saw a young man at the crossing looking down at something in his hands. At the same time he heard the horn of the train, he looked up and the next thing he was gone,” one witness, stopped on the south side of the tracks, told DRPS. “I then saw the people in the cars behind me out of their cars talking, so I got out and was asking, ‘Where did the kid go?’ ‘Where did he go?’ I don’t know.”

Other witnesses rushed to Jacob’s aid, one with a first aid kit, another a registered nurse.

Someone brought a blanket to cover him with before police and ambulance arrived.

Jacob suffered severe injuries, including a large skull fracture, double collapsed lung, a broken femur and internal injuries. Yet, he clung to life.

When the ambulance arrived, Jacob was rushed to the hospital before it was decided he be airlifted to Sunnybrook in Toronto.

But the injuries would prove too severe and Jacob would die not long after.

More than three years later, there is still nothing to stop this tragedy from happening again.

Janice Hicks, Jacob’s mother, has been looking to change that.

Unanswered Questions

When something unexpected happens, especially with terrible consequences, it is a natural human response to seek answers and for Janice Hicks, there are several questions still lingering around her son’s death.

First, while she accepts that multiple witnesses spotted her son, distracted, walking toward the tracks looking at what could have been a cellphone or MP3 player, she tells The Oshawa Express that her son’s phone was dead when she dropped him off for his co-op placement.

“One of the things I told him was, ‘Make sure you don’t have your phone on when you’re working, because employers aren’t going to like that very much if you’ve got your phone out,’ and he said, ‘Nothing to worry about Mom, the phone is dead anyway,’” Janice says.

Later, Janice was told Jacob had also been texting friends around the time of the accident, but something about this doesn’t add up either, she says.

“When I got the phone back from the police officer, the last text was the one he had sent to me,” she says. That last text was sent hours previous, before Janice drove Jacob to his placement.

“My thing was, (Jacob’s placement was) on the west side of the street. If he just came out, threw on his earbuds, started listening to music and didn’t have any consideration for what was happening around him and was just so distracted, what made him take common sense to cross the street and get to the sidewalk, as opposed to just walking down the grass (on the west side of Wilson Road),” Janice says. “So he was obviously thinking I need to cross the street, he obviously crossed the street, so he must have been paying attention to that.”

The police report ruled Jacob’s death an accident, and several times it is mentioned his phone distracted him.

If that was the case, Janice believes there is one thing that could have prevented it.

“I personally think if there had been a gate, knowing my child, I think he would have (thought), ‘OK, there’s a gate, it’s still down, that means there is something still going on, and stopped,’” Janice says.

The fight for Jacob’s Gate

Canada has the third largest rail network in the world, and thousands of these level crossings, both public and private, dot the country.

In 2013, there were 23 fatal crossing accidents in Canada. While pedestrians accounted for only nine per cent of all crossing accidents, they accounted for more than half of the fatal collisions. This means that while pedestrians are a low cause of crossing incidents, when they do occur, the outcomes are more than likely to be fatal.

According to Transport Canada, responsibility for rail crossing safety is a joint effort between the rail companies using the tracks and the municipality in which the crossing is located.

In Jacob’s case, Canadian National Railway (CN) and the City of Oshawa are responsible for the safety at the Wilson Road level crossing.

Railway crossings must meet the new safety regulations outlined in the Grade Crossing Regulations. According to Transport Canada spokesperson Melany Gauvin, these regulations are results based.

“This means they contain options for bringing a consistent level of safety to each railway crossing in Canada. Railway companies and road authorities will continue to apply the best options for making their crossing safe,” she tells The Oshawa Express in an emailed statement.

Gauvin also says Transport Canada holds an oversight role when it comes to safety, ensuring rail companies and road authorities meet rules, regulations and standards.

Following Jacob’s incident, officials from the City of Oshawa, CN and Transport Canada held meetings to discuss the options for safety at the crossing.

Safety options included the installation of automatic pedestrian gates, similar to those that prevent cars from entering the tracks when a train is approaching, or what is known as a mini-maze.

A mini-maze, simply, are two offset sections of metal gate that a pedestrian would need to weave through to enter the tracks.

During early conversations, it was Janice’s understanding that automatic pedestrian gates was the option being considered by the city and CN.

According to a city report, the addition of automatic gates for pedestrians would cost approximately $350,000. A mini-maze would come at a fraction of the cost, coming with a price tag of approximately $30,000.

In a meeting of the community services committee earlier this year, Bill Grylls, the city’s manager of traffic, streetlighting and municipal parking, said CN was looking to install the mini-maze and were very fixed on that idea from a funding perspective.

When approached for comment, Pierre Bergeron, the regional manager of public and government affairs for eastern Canada with CN, told The Express that “discussions with the city about the level crossing are ongoing. We won’t comment further,” he said in an emailed statement.

Grylls says that no concrete plans have been set for the safety measures on Wilson Road.

“We’re still gathering some information and will be coming back with a report,” Grylls says. “At this stage of the game, I’m not sure that anything concrete is being proposed at this time.”

A timeline was not provided for the release of the report, but Grylls previously told The Express it would be coming “soon.”

The city and CN have also discussed applying for funding through Transport Canada’s Grade Crossing Improvement Program (GCIP). Through this program, Transport Canada could cover up to 50 per cent of the cost for safety measures with city and CN splitting the remainder.

However, Gauvin says Transport Canada has not received any application for funding for safety improvements at the Wilson Road crossing.

Grylls says no application has been filed yet due to the fact that to make an application, a detailed design and funding estimate needs to be established.

“Until you decide on what is being done, you really can’t apply,” he says.

For Janice, a mini-maze would not be enough.

“I have publicly said to the city that I don’t want the maze,” Janice says. “I said that because I think if they install the maze, that’s it, they won’t care about anything else, they will have felt that they put the Band-Aid on and that’s all they have to do.”

Janice says distracted youth are used to avoiding obstacles they see from the corner of their eyes, something she sees on a daily basis in the halls of the high school where she works.

Councillor Bob Chapman, who has been involved with discussions on safety measures at Wilson Road since Jacob’s accident, says in recent discussions with CN, the debate is still ongoing over an electronic gate or the installation of the mini-maze. However, Chapman says he would like to see the electronic gate installed.

“The city of Oshawa has already put their money aside, they put is aside right after this happened,” Chapman says, speaking of the $87,000 council put aside for an electronic gate following Jacob’s death.

Chapman says Transport Canada is supportive of the decision for an electronic gate and has told the city they would support a recommendation to the federal government to fund 50 percent of the gate.

“We need CN to come on board and say we’re in the for this,” Chapman says.

But in needs to happen soon, according to Chapman.

“Part of the problem is going to be, if somebody doesn’t get off their can soon, there’s an election, and is the minister going to be back? Is it going to be the same minister? I mean, a lot of paperwork gets lost during elections.”

In response to Jacob’s accident, a teacher at the high school polled one of her classes. One hundred per cent of the class said they walk down the street with their headphones in, 100 per cent said they text and walk and, finally, 100 per cent said they do both. Most of them admitted they would just walk around a barrier if it was there.

“I think people feel, in response to this story…but for the fact that he had earbuds in, he wouldn’t have been distracted and he wouldn’t have been hit by that train. My theory is if there were gates, he wouldn’t have been hit by that train,” Janice says.

And now she is taking a step further to get the gates she says could save lives.

Petitioning for the right solution

For over three years, Janice has corresponded with councillors at city hall, city staff, rail and Transport Canada officials and appeared before the community services committee, yet the Wilson Road crossing stands with no safety measures.

Now, she’s looking to the public for help.

Janice has launched a petition with the goal of making it law that all level crossings should require automatic pedestrian gates.

“The petition is because I went to city hall and I did what I could and got the answers that I could from them and I tried to get a response from CN and I tried to get a response from Transport Canada…and I’m not getting any answers from anybody, so I’m afraid to leave things,” Janice says.

Currently the petition had garnered 680 signatures as of press time.

To sign the petition visit:

Even today, Janice says she is not looking for someone to blame for Jacob’s death, and she doesn’t want to take any legal action, what she wants is simple.

“I just want it not to happen again, that’s what I want,” she says.