Trains and Trespassing: Ending Tragic Encounters

By Robert Sumwalt

Last week, a personal trainer lost his life next to railroad tracks near Atlanta. He was the second fitness guru to die this year on railroad property in the process of making videos.

Trespassing forum logoThis week – yesterday and today – I have been privileged to preside over an NTSB forum on the subject of trains and trespassing, in which experts throughout the railroad, research, regulatory, and safety advocacy worlds examined the problem of trains striking pedestrians.

Pedestrian trespassing still causes the majority of all deaths in railroad transportation. According to Operation Lifesaver, Inc., more than 900 railroad trespassers were struck by trains last year and more than half of those struck were killed. So statistically speaking, it is likely that four people were struck by trains and two died during the time we spent discussing the problem.

Trespassing on railroad property is both against the law, and potentially tragic.

Walking along railroad tracks is trespassing. Taking a short-cut across the tracks is trespassing. Sitting on railroad property nearby the tracks is trespassing. It is against the law.

Even so, railroad trespassing is glamorized in movies, television, and songs. Those who have not done it themselves likely know somebody who has. While it is a crime, it is an all-too-common one. And trespassers pay the highest penalty not when they are caught and penalized by other human beings, but when their “sentence” is a collision with a train weighing thousands of tons with no time to brake.

Why do people trespass on railroad property? The answers are diverse.

Many really don’t even think that they are committing a crime. Others do not realize the danger, thinking they will surely hear an approaching train. Others glamorize the risk, and seek it on purpose. Some are purposely taking their own lives.

Still others take short-cuts across the tracks so often that they forget the danger. Dotted across the country are footpaths leading up to tracks – they are so well-worn that they can be seen from the air.

The tragic consequences of these events go far beyond what happens to those who are struck. They ripple through families, communities, and train crews.

During the forum, experts discussed the diversity of trespassing accidents and incidents; current trespassing prevention strategies; challenges to trespassing prevention; and moving prevention forward.

But we began the forum with some first-hand accounts. Mark Kalina shared the memory of the night that he lost his legs to a train taking a risk as a college student.

Often engineers pay a high price, even when there is nothing that they can do to avoid striking someone on the tracks. Norma Kirby, an Amtrak engineer, recounted the effect of trespassing incidents and accidents on her own life. Chian Gavin, who works in Amtrak’s employee assistance program, gave an overview of the effect of such experiences within a railroad’s workforce.

High-school principal Danny Knot painted a vivid picture of the effect on his school of the trespassing loss of two students; and Art Miller explained the emotional and career effects of a trespassing strike on a movie set – effects he felt although he was not even present.

Five personal struggles. Five out of the hundreds involved in these tragic encounters every year, and the thousands who are touched by them.

While the remainder of the forum helped us to better understand possible advances against the tide of rail trespassing deaths and injuries, there is no single stereotype of a trespasser, and no single magic bullet to stop trespassing deaths and injuries. Yet the stakes for individuals, and for their communities, can be enormous.

During the two days of the forum we looked into many promising ideas, including a community approach that has been used to help tackle bigger and more diverse problems than railroad trespassing; it is possible that it will result in safety gains here too. I am excited to see whether this approach takes hold.

But whatever new approaches may drive down the statistics, there is something that you can do, as a reader of this blog, that I promise will be 100% effective in protecting you against such a tragic encounter: Stay off railroad property.

Don’t take a short-cut across the tracks. Don’t walk on the tracks. Don’t lie next to the tracks. Don’t run across the tracks. Don’t pose for a “selfie” next to the tracks. Don’t let your family members do it either, and don’t let others in your neighborhood. It simply is not worth the risk.

At the NTSB, we are interested in ending trespassing because trespassing ends lives. We hope that the conversation that has begun in this forum will result in new approaches to countering trespassing in the future.

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