Tuesday, July 29, 2014

INRD near-fatalities underscore trespassing problem

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
INRD Shuffle Creek Trestle INRD Shuffle Creek Trestle William C. Vantuono
Railroads, Operation Lifesaver, and law enforcement communicate three facts on a daily basis: “Railroad tracks are private property, they are not public thoroughfares, and they are very dangerous.” Yet, despite these efforts, trespasser fatalities have been on the rise.

According to the most recent Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis statistics, trespasser fatalities in the first four months of 2014, at 167, were 30.5% higher than the same 2013 period, in which 128 deaths occurred. From the same period in 2011, following three years of relatively flat numbers (123, 124, and 128; for 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively), they’ve risen 35.8%.

This came into sharp focus at 6:50 a.m. Thursday, July 10, 2014, on Indiana Rail Road’s viaduct spanning an inlet of Lake Lemon, 10 miles northeast of Bloomington, Ind., when two female subjects were found trespassing on the middle of the bridge, known as Shuffle Creek Trestle. INRD spokesperson Eric Powell describes the incident:

“The person who first saw the trespassers was the engineer in the lead locomotive of a northbound, 14,000-ton INRD freight train traveling at 30 mph. Imagine, if you will, rounding a curve just before a 500-foot-long, 80-foot-high bridge, only to find two subjects sitting in your train’s path. The engineer followed all appropriate protocols, immediately making an emergency brake application and repeatedly sounded the horn. However, as the subjects ran toward the opposite end of the viaduct, the engineer was helpless to do more. The slowing train was still catching up to the fleeing trespassers.

“Nearly every locomotive in North America, including ours, is equipped with video cameras for safety and security purposes. Our video shows that with more than 100 feet left until the end of the bridge, and the train still catching up to them, one woman slammed her body onto the ties between the rails. The other veered to the left and nearly fell off the bridge, and then with the locomotive approximately 30 feet away, she too ‘hit the deck’ between the rails. By the time the train came to a stop, the locomotives were beyond the bridge; they completely passed the point where the subjects stopped running. The engineer assumed he had just killed two people. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department was quickly alerted. Miraculously, however, the two subjects survived, and escaped to a nearby vehicle and fled the scene.”

“The consequences of trespassing on railroad-owned property are never taken seriously by those choosing to do so, and this incident at Lake Lemon is one of the most glaring examples I’ve seen in more than 40 years in this business,” says Indiana Rail Road Co. Founder, President, and CEO Tom Hoback. “In this case, not only did two trespassers narrowly escape a horrible death, but had the heavy train derailed due to the emergency brake application—which isn’t uncommon—it could have taken down the bridge, possibly killing the engineer as well. The human, environmental, and financial toll would have been enormous.”

The subjects involved in the Shuffle Creek incident have been identified by law enforcement, and the trespassing incident is now a criminal matter. “But the tragic fact remains that 908 people were killed in the U.S. by trespassing on railroads in 2013; 38 of those unnecessary deaths were in Indiana, and each represents a tragedy that mars the lives of not just the trespasser’s family, but railroaders and their families for life,” says Hoback.

The reasons behind trespasser fatalities increasing in recent years are difficult to ascertain. “We know that there was an 11% increase in trespassing fatalities from 2012 to 2013, and that the first four months of 2014 are trending higher still,” Operation Lifesaver President and CEO Joyce Rose tells Railway Age. “We recognize that educating the public about the dangers of trespassing on railroad property can be even more challenging than educating people about how to be safe around grade crossings, because it is harder to target the trespass audience—everyone walks. This is one of the reasons that we developed and deployed a large-scale, national public awareness safety campaign called ‘See Tracks? Think Train!’ that focuses particularly on trespass prevention, as well as crossing safety and anti-distraction messages for rail and transit passengers. The video PSA, which is currently being played by 86 television stations around the country, has an especially strong anti-trespass message.”

One possible, and potentially major, contributing cause to the increase in railroad trespassing fatalities and injuries is what Rose calls “distracted walking,” pedestrians who “are focused on their cell phone or other handheld electronic device instead of paying attention to where they’re walking—especially if they are using earbuds or headphones,” she says. “A recent study by an Ohio State University professor published in the August 2013 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention shows that pedestrian cell phone-related injuries have more than doubled since 2005, based on emergency room data from 100 hospitals around the country maintained by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. The study found that the age group most at risk is young adults under 30.”

For more information on trespassing laws, and railroad safety and awareness, visit Operation Lifesaver’s website at www.oli.org.