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Approximately every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train in the U.S., according to statistics from Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI), the nonprofit rail safety organization. And, highway rail crossing and trespasser deaths account for 95% of all rail-related deaths.
“In the first six months of , total crossing collisions [were] up 4.5 percent over the same period in 2012. Trespass deaths rose 25 percent,” Joyce Rose, president/CEO of OLI says.
However, the number of fatalities over the years is going down, albeit slowly, says Rose. There are approximately 160,000 miles of track in the U.S., according to the Association of American Railroads, and 220,000 grade crossings.
“I guess that the opportunity for people to be on the railroad track where they don’t belong is just too great,” she says. “There are too many opportunities out there.”
According to FTA data compiled between 2003 and 2008, the highest number of fatalities for rail transit were in the crossing and trespass categories. In terms of rail safety awareness, Rose says she believes there is a little better traction with regard to rail crossing safety, but generally speaking, she believes that people’s understanding of walking on railroad tracks as trespassing just isn’t there.
“I look online sometimes and see photography studios are posing whole families or the graduating class in the middle of railroad tracks,” Rose says.
She says that it’s a part of popular culture, referencing the movie “Stand By Me,” which showed young kids walking along train tracks. “It’s almost romanticized,” she says of rail trespassing.
OLI is primarily an education organization, Rose says.
“We deliver education and awareness products to the public about how to be safe around rail crossings and along rail rights of way. That’s what our roughly 1,200 volunteers in the 50 state OLI programs around the country do.”
The bulk of presentations by OLI are conducted by volunteers in communities around the country. OLI volunteers reach approximately 2.7 million people a year with presentations on rail safety.
“We have a variety of educational products that are designed for these different audiences,” she explains.
To be able to deliver this rail safety message even further, OLI is moving its training to an online system to allow more people to join, and the organization is placing the materials that volunteers use online so that its key safety messages are accessible and transparent to everyone.
In addition, OLI is expanding its educational offerings to add more e-learning. This allows law enforcement, truck drivers and other target professionals to learn rail safety in an interactive format at their own pace. The program places participants in the driver’s seat and takes them through different driving scenarios around railroad tracks.
In August 2013, OLI signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) to partner on developing new educational materials on transportation safety. This will include creating new educational materials for bus drivers operating public transit vehicles at highway-rail grade crossings. One of those resources is social and digital media. The MOU calls for APTA and OLI to share Web-based materials on each other’s websites and social media feeds, including public service announcements, videos and other awareness materials. In addition, the two organizations will help publicize each other’s workshops and meetings.
“Our challenge as far as transit goes, is in really increasing our footprint and being in more of the day-to-day world of rail transit safety,” Rose says. “One way that we are going to work toward that is by making sure that transit is part of our national safety campaign we’re going to be conducting [this] year called “See track, think train.”
It will be a TV, radio, print ad campaign, with regional roll outs.
“This is geared toward the man on the street. We’re going to try to do a unified campaign that looks the same everywhere,” Rose says adding, “I think the advantage of that is it will resonate more.”
Training law enforcement and first responders is a large part of OLI’s educational focus. Florida Operation Lifesaver, headed by State Coordinator Andre Goins, is gearing up for a training campaign aimed specifically toward first responders in the jurisdiction along the SunRail corridor — the new commuter rail system currently under construction in the Greater Orlando area.
“[The training] will give them a greater awareness of the value that they can bring to increasing the safety effort along the rail line,” Goins says.
The agency is developing a series of videos and other educational tools such as blueprints of the railcars and how the equipment works; alternate route planning tools; aids for pre-planning incidents; and information on the types of incidents they may encounter.
“The major things we want them to address is trespassing, which is the biggest cause of fatalities on the rail corridor,” Goins says.