As a state and U.S. citizen, driver and retired railroad signalman, I have seen firsthand and understand the many dangers that railroads can present to an uninitiated, unsuspecting, and uninformed public; that is with regard to moving and standing trains, tracks and rights of way, and related structures such as bridges and tunnels. Other than in crossing over highway-railroad grade crossings designated as either public or in certain cases, private, or being on a passenger train or its associated passenger train station, depot and terminal property so-designated for public use and access, these venues absolutely are off limits. The railroad is private property and unauthorized trespass is illegal, not to mention that for the general public the areas where being on such property is deemed illegal, can also present a “real” danger.
In one incident I was witness to a few years ago a bicyclist crossed paths with a speeding passenger train, the completely preventable incident resulted in the cyclist sustaining mild to moderate injury to both elbow and knee. Watching the event unfold at the time seemed surreal. Looking at the circumstance from the perspective of a train-operating crewmember, and having communicated directly with said person, that on-train conductor’s response was that these occurrences “happen all the time.”
While that particular statement lends itself to interpretation, these incidents, do happen, and all too often at that.
Once more, such was the case on the evening of Thursday, March 27, just days ago, as I was once again reminded of the horror and severity of “pedestrian-caused” trespasser vs. train collisions. Now I know that may sound a bit harsh, but in truth, it is practically impossible for a person to be struck by a train if they are not where they don’t belong in the first place. In the particular instance of which I’m referring, 15-year-old Fresnan Shawn Potter, along with two friends were allegedly “playing chicken” with a freight train as information in the 3/29/08 Fresno Bee sadly brings to light. The teenager’s life was tragically and needlessly cut short after he was struck and later died.
According to accounts in the Bee report, police Lieutenant Art Alvarado was quoted as saying: “‘They knew the train was there, and they were just playing – who can last longest to get out of the way.’”
These tragedies are both sad and painful reminders that there are an approximate 500 annual trespasser-related deaths and a like number of injuries sustained in this country every year as Federal Railroad Administration statistics reveal.
Closer to home, preliminary FRA trespass-related statistics show that last year in California alone there were 82 fatalities and exactly half the number of injuries. Meanwhile, in the nation overall, there were 486 and 393 fatalities and injuries, respectively.
If you’re wondering why these incidents – train/motor vehicle, train/bicycle or train/pedestrian collisions – and close calls happen at all, it’s mostly due to ignorance, impatience, inattention or just plain carelessness and/or a blatant disregard for personal safety. The remainder, are comprised of suicides and attempted suicides.
It is primarily with the above in mind, Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide program first instituted in Idaho in 1972, was created.
Back then, the effort’s focus was directed at reducing the numbers of incidents where motor vehicles and trains tangled – at highway-railroad grade crossings. Much more recently, though, trespass-related incidents caught the organization’s attention and educational programs were subsequently developed for the purpose of helping to mitigate these.
In 1972 when OL got underway, amazingly in the U.S. there were nearly 12,000 crashes involving vehicles and trains resulting in 6,000 injuries and 1,200 fatalities annually. Through Operation Lifesaver and other similar and ongoing efforts as well as with regard to engineering improvements not only at crossings but on trains themselves such as the addition of locomotive-mounted ditch lights, according to preliminary Federal Railroad Administration 2007 statistics, today those figures are 2,728, 986 and 339, respectively. Over the life of the now 36-year-old OL effort, that’s an incredible three-fourths drop in incidents alone. Meanwhile, corresponding injuries saw a nearly 83 percent reduction while fatalities are down a quite commendable 70 percent. Although the progress has been tremendous, there is still more work to be done in getting Operation Lifesaver’s crucial safety message out to the public en masse.
And to what can Operation Lifesaver’s success in particular be attributed? It’s “3-Es” (Education, Engineering and Enforcement) approach and teamwork, teamwork built on the efforts of presenters, trainers and supporting agencies, organizations, businesses and community volunteers alike. Many, in fact, believe Operation Lifesaver has been one of the most, if not the most successful transportation-based safety campaign yet devised. The ultimate aim here of course is that incidents like Thursday’s and others are repeated no more.
Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.