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.[PAGEBREAK]
Education has always been a key proponent of the rail crossing safety program for the San Carlos, Calif.-based commuter rail service, Caltrain, operated by the San Mateo County Transit District. In the spring of 2013, when a high school student who was walking on the tracks was struck and killed by a train, the agency took steps to develop a youth-oriented message.
“It’s fairly unusual for us to have a teenager who is struck and killed by a train,” Christine Dunn, public information officer for Caltrain says. “We wanted to do something to get the word out to teenagers, in particular, about railroad safety.”
A brainstorming session resulted in the idea of developing safety videos that were produced by teenagers. The agency was fortunate to find a local digital arts program for teenagers called Fresh Takes. Ten students with video production experience got together for two weeks in August to produce the videos. During the “video camp” the students were given safety presentations by OLI volunteers as well as Caltrain staffers that discussed the particular challenges along the corridor.
“Because we go through a number of downtowns in the peninsula, there are a lot of pedestrians and vehicle traffic in the area, and people live very close to the train tracks,” Dunn says. “We also talked about different safety messages [the students] could highlight.”
Complacency has been a challenge, she adds, because people are so used to the railroad that they are unaware of how dangerous it is. Other safety messages addressed inattention as well as the students’ own safety while they were doing the production. Because the students were shooting video near the right of way, Caltrain staffers worked alongside them as well.
Working in teams, the ten students each wrote, produced and edited a safety video approximately two minutes in length — perfect for public service announcements, Dunn says. At the culmination of the project, Caltrain had a film festival to introduce the videos to the public.
Following the screening, the students answered questions from the audience. “They got some really thought-provoking questions and the kids had some interesting things to say,” she says.
“I think one of the most important things about the film project was that they were videos produced by teenagers for teenagers, so we really felt that might be a more effective way of reaching [out to them],” Dunn says, adding that it was interesting to see the students’ knowledge about safety around the railroads evolve over the two weeks they spent on the project.
Dunn says the first natural step is to work with the students’ schools to show the videos and make them available to anyone one that wants to utilize them, as well as including them in Caltrain’s safety presentations.
In 2012, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) passed an ordinance to ban distracted behavior when crossing the track. The ordinance seeks to restrict things like texting, talking on the phone, listening to music with headphones, reading, rushing to get through moving gates or traveling in track grades. The violations are considered civil, not criminal. The distracted behavior fines are a Class III violation. The first violation of this type would result in a fine of $50; repeat offenses will cost $100, according to UTA’s website. On a first offense, violators will be offered the option of taking a $25 rail safety course. Fines for rushing through moving gates and traveling in the alignment are higher — a Class V — at $300 for a first offense and $500 for every violation thereafter.
The measure is not meant to be punitive, but educational, allowing transit officers greater opportunity to teach safe behavior and prevent future incidents. “People have their headphones on, they’re looking down at their handheld [devices], they’re just in their own world,” David Goeres, chief safety officer, UTA, says. “So distracted driving, distracted pedestrians, that’s something society as a whole is attempting to react to,” he adds.
“We write about five of those tickets a month. It’s not a heavily enforced issue,” says Goeres. “If there’s an ordinance on the books that says we can cite you if you’re distracted, it gets your attention.”
When the UTA first implemented the ordinance, it had the exact effect the agency was looking for by garnering a lot of publicity on Facebook and other social media. According to Goeres, you have to change things up to get people’s attention.
“Signs, they [fade] into the background after time,” he says. “You have to change your message, change your signs, change your advertising.”
A dedicated unit of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, the Transit Police Bureau, is responsible for policing Caltrain property, including stations, parking lots and the railroad right of way, according to Dunn.
The transit police use a High-Intensity Safety Enforcement Program to target locations where people may engage in unsafe behavior, such as trespassing along the rail line and walking around lowered gates at stations or grade crossings. [PAGEBREAK]
The Transit Police deputies have also been trained in crisis intervention, so they can recognize people who may be a threat to themselves or others in the vicinity of Caltrain’s railroad, Dunn says. As a result of the specialized training, 23 people were removed from the right of way in 2012 and referred to treatment. Through October of 2013, 19 people were removed from the right of way and referred to treatment.
“We average about 12 fatalities a year and a vast majority of them are caused by suicide,” Dunn says. “It needs to be addressed as a mental health issue by the community, and Caltrain is a member of our community.”
As part of its effort to prevent these incidents, Caltrain has placed suicide prevention signs and hotline numbers along its corridor. The agency also participates in local community mental health organizations working to address suicide. “We are there as an active participant in learning about and trying to prevent suicide, she says.
In 2012, a team of San Mateo County Transit District employees, who also manage Caltrain, raised nearly $12,000 to prevent suicides. The team joined more than 2,000 people in an 18-mile walk in San Francisco, the Out of the Darkness Overnight, to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “That was a great way for us to feel like we were making a difference, and for our employees to feel like they were making a difference,” Dunn says.
The UTA just completed its $2.5 billion 2015 Front Lines program of building 70 miles of rail in seven years. “We actually did it in five years,” Goere says. Last August, the agency opened its fifth line to complete the project. Each of the rail openings, on which the UTA partnered with Operation Lifesaver, featured a media campaign blitz with radio, TV and billboards, which always included a safety message, he says. As part of the Front Lines program, the UTA also installed new pedestrian safety treatments, which are offset pieces of fencing at every crossing on the new lines. “If you are distracted, you bump into a piece of fence before you walk right out into the middle of a rail corridor,” Goeres says.
The pedestrian fencing also features signs as well as flashing lights at heavier crossings. “It’s something that blocks a straight path,” he says.
“Our mantra is ‘No straight through, no straight across.’” Eliminating all the straight-through crossings was prompted by an incident in 2011 when a pedestrian crossing the track on a new line was hit by an approaching train, Goeres says.
The transit system also plans to redo the pedestrian fencing on its existing lines and its FrontRunner North Line, a 45-mile corridor.
A couple of years ago, Caltrain updated all of its vehicle and pedestrian crossings on the corridor, installing pedestrian gates and center medians to prevent cars from driving around the crossing gates and upgrading the track panels so it’s easier for cars to drive across. Currently, the rail agency is working on a $155 million grade separation project in the city of San Bruno, to elevate Caltrain tracks above three existing at-grade crossings. The California Public Utilities Commission rated these crossings as being among the most dangerous in the state, Dunn says.
In addition to improving safety for both motorists and pedestrians, the project will reduce traffic congestion to and from Highway 101 in the city of San Bruno. The project will provide three pedestrian underpasses, elevators will provide easy access for Caltrain customers, and streets and sidewalks will also be improved.