A Reinvigorated Operation Lifesaver

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor
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Operation Lifesaver Inc. Executive Director Rachel Maleh.

WATCHING WASHINGTON, RAILWAY AGE MARCH 2020 ISSUE: Welcome back, Operation Lifesaver. Visibly restored is the vim and vigor vital to your task. While you were regrouping, horribles continued at highway-rail grade crossings and on the steel rails that too often are narcotizing agents for otherwise safety-conscious hikers, joggers, dog walkers, photographers, short-cut seekers, snowmobilers, those fishing, midday wanderers and the permanently idle.

Because daily more than two people die in grade crossing accidents and trespassing, with five more hospitalized owing to related injuries, and when every three hours a person or vehicle is hit by a train, the OLI job description is memorialized in blood. Today and tomorrow, as yesterday, there must be resolute determination to change human behavior.

Yes, Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI) is a small non-profit—just four full-time employees—but as Daniel Webster memorably told the Supreme Court in 1819 in defending Dartmouth College’s private charter, “there are those who love it.”

Demonstrating similar love are some 2,000 OLI volunteers across America, each carrying a simple slogan, “Always Expect A Train.” Accompanying that message is education on train safety, the law as it applies to grade crossings and rail private property, encouragement that those laws be enforced, and pleas for improved civil engineering to make rail crossings safer.

Indeed, with more than 210,000 public grade crossings nationwide, vehicle-miles traveled setting annual records, the magnetizing attractiveness of deceptively deadly rail rights-of-way when the iron horse isn’t visible, a proliferation of attention-diverting personal digital devices, and that it takes a moving train a mile or more to stop, it is understandable that safety awareness messaging is an immense challenge.

Impressively, there appears a renewed OLI commitment evidenced in three relatively new arrivals—the three collectively injecting newfound eagerness, rail-safety expertise and sorely needed supplemental private sector funding to give OLI better tools to pursue more effectively its mission.

OLI Executive Director Rachel Maleh, with 25 years in non-profit management and public outreach, is focusing those skills on OLI’s grassroots network of state program directors and their volunteers. Among them is retired history professor Rudolph Daniels, author of “Trains Across the Continent” and “The Great Railroad War,” who travels at his own expense thousands of miles across Iowa annually to make OLI-endorsed presentations at schools and before civic groups and to first responders and police.

Maleh’s leadership has boosted by 55% to 42,000 the number of OLI followers on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, while an upgraded website is generating 600,000 annual views. Complimentary print, television and radio Public Service Announcements are reaching millions of Americans annually. Direct presentations, as well as on-line interactive instruction and videos, reach 2 million annually at schools, state fairs and in classes for first responders, police and commercial vehicle drivers.

Jo Strang

Providing guidance to OLI is a board of directors representing railroads, rail suppliers and motor coach operators, and chaired by Jo Strang, Senior Vice President, Safety and Regulatory Affairs at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. A former National Transportation Safety Board Rail Division associate director, and later the Federal Railroad Administration’s chief safety officer, Strang’s expertise has won wide acclaim from labor unions, and she long has been consulted for guidance by congressional committees.

Henry Posner III

The third OLI reinforcement is former Conrail operations executive and now entrepreneur Henry Posner III, chairman of Railroad Development Corp., whose global rail holdings include Iowa Interstate Railroad. Continuing a decades-long family tradition of compassionate capitalism, the Posner Foundation has made what Maleh terms a “significant” financial contribution to help leverage OLI’s federal and state grants and Class I railroad contributions. Notably, Posner established an OLI program on his Estonia rail operation, and is extending it to rail holdings in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru.

American railroads have teamed with OLI in asking Congress to increase grants appropriated to a variety of federal programs that fund grade crossing active warning devices, provide direct assistance for OLI educational materials and activities, and aid states in eliminating at-grade highway crossings, including construction of under- and over-passes.

“OLI,” says Maleh, while impatiently sharing slide decks, data-rich charts and media packages, “is all about safer choices near tracks and trains.”

Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, among them Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight, all published by Simmons-Boardman Books. Wilner earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner drafted the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan Administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

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