Virginia Railway Express went 20 years without its trains killing a single person, a rarity in the train business. But the commuter train service has had two deaths in less than a month, both of which appear to be suicides.

"You go 20 years without this and suddenly you have two in two months, really one month," said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber. "It's disheartening."

Train crews, train employees and riders are left to deal with the horror -- and the massive delays to get home. The train that struck a man Monday night was held up two hours and 41 minutes, according to VRE.

Cow's tongue slows commuter train
Virginia Railway Express also has been delayed by another police investigation, though one with an odder backstory.
On Sept. 19, a suspicious package containing what appeared to be human remains snarled a train in Manassas Park for about two and a half hours. But the remains were not a human foot, as feared. Instead, VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said, it was a cow's tongue studded with metal spikes as part of a Santeria ritual.

Now officials are wondering if Monday's death could have been a copycat of an October death, Roeber said.

In Monday's incident, a 44-year-old Woodbridge man was killed when a Fredericksburg-bound VRE train struck him near Dumfries.

The man was hit at 7:04 p.m. near Cherry Hill Road, according to Prince William County police. They said the man was seen standing on the tracks as the train approached and did not move out of the train's path. He died at the scene.

The death delayed train service for two trains and stranded the approximately 250 riders on that train for hours. "It was a very, very remote area. Even to get buses in there would be difficult," Roeber said.

VRE cleared another train of riders, then sent it as a rescue train to pull alongside the stopped train. The riders were finally on the move by about 9:50 p.m., nearly three hours after the man was hit. "There wasn't anything else we could do," Roeber said.

That death came after a similar incident on Oct. 10, where a man was struck by a Manassas Line train near Fairfax Station in Fairfax County.

The train operator blew his horn after spotting the man near the tracks, but the man stepped onto the tracks with his back to the train, Fairfax County police said. The death prompted VRE to cancel a number of trains and set up bus service for riders. Riders on the train that struck the man were stranded for more than two hours before the train was allowed to move.

Deaths by trains are common across the country -- whether by commuter, freight or subway train. But they can present a unique challenge when the train is full of riders.

Deaths on the Metro system typically occur at stations when riders fall or jump from the platform, meaning riders can exit the trains relatively quickly. But with the open tracks used for commuter rails, such strikes can occur far from any station platform.