“Stop. Trains Can’t.” — the Federal Railroad Administration’s slogan for its 4-month-old campaign to reduce deaths and injuries at railroad crossings — is, at first glance, the type of “thank you, Captain Obvious” PR move that makes most journalists roll their eyes and move on to their next email message.
Admittedly, that’s what most of us here at the Post-Record would have done, had the FRA’s campaign press release come across our desks.
But then we heard a story we just couldn’t shake: Just last week, a young mother and her teen son were crossing railroad tracks near Camas, en route to a residential area, when they were hit by a fast-moving Amtrak train. The mother died at the scene. The son, miraculously, survived. He walked away from the accident, but is undoubtedly suffering an emotional trauma most of us can’t even imagine.
We got into our own cars and went home to our own children that day, and we wondered: “Why did it happen? Did she not see or hear the train? Was she distracted? Did she, like so many have done before, simply underestimate the train’s speed? What could have prevented that accident? Would rail-crossing arms or warning bells have helped?”
We couldn’t let it go. So, we did a little digging — and what we found surprised us.
As it turns out, there are no neat and tidy, “do X and Y will get better” answers when it comes to rail-crossing safety. In fact, as the FRA folks must have discovered while researching their safety campaign, “Stop. Trains Can’t.” is pretty much the only message that makes any sense in the quest to prevent deaths along railroad tracks and at rail crossings.
Here’s one fact that jumped out at us right away: According to the FRA, although flashing lights and gates are a good start, they don’t prevent nearly as many rail-crossing accidents as you might imagine, since nearly half of all collisions at rail crossings happen at intersections with active warning devices. Even more horrific — 25 percent of rail-crossing accidents happen when the train is already barreling through the crossing.
A national group called Operation Lifesaver, now in its 45th year of trying to prevent rail-crossing accidents and educate the public, had another surprising statistic: The number of railroad accidents involving a driver trying to go across rail lines are decreasing, but the number of incidents involving a trespassing pedestrian climbs higher each year.
“Every day, people are walking, exercising and taking pictures on or too close to the tracks, all of which is illegal and extremely dangerous,” Operation Lifesaver states on its website. “Trespassing incidents were up 14.5 percent last year, resulting in 988 deaths and injuries.”
Many of these “trespassing pedestrian” fatalities involve people who are taking selfies or have even come to the tracks with a professional photographer.
In Washington, railroad safety isn’t part of the culture like it is in many other states, such as Texas, which has 10,000 miles’ worth of railroad tracks, or Pennsylvania, where crossing railroad tracks is a common, everyday occurrence in rural and urban areas — and one of the first things you learn how to do as a young driver.
That’s not to say that railroad dangers aren’t present here. We’re only in month five of 2017, but there already have been six deaths along railroad tracks in Washington State — three involving drivers at rail crossings and three including pedestrians trespassing on the tracks. In Camas and Washougal, there have been nine rail-related deaths since 1999.
If the Millennium Bulk coal terminal in Longview, Washington and the Tesoro-Savage crude oil terminal in Vancouver go through, the C-W area will see as many as 21 more trains per day on local rail lines.
We must act now to teach our children and new members of this community how to stay safe near the tracks. It’s not enough, as we found out, to rely on the bells and whistles. We should, at the very least, be teaching our own family about the dangers of driving across the tracks and standing anywhere near them.
Operation Lifesaver has a wealth of information for teachers and parents on their site, as well education materials geared toward community groups and first responders. Check them out at oli.org.
And, whenever you find yourself walking or driving across railroad tracks, just remember what the FRA says: “Stop. Trains Can’t.”