Today kicks off Operation Lifesaver’s 2020 Rail Safety Week in North America. In normal years, Operation Lifesaver and its partners hold events across the country to educate the public on rail safety issues and promote safe actions around railroad tracks. Those efforts will be focused on virtual outreach this year. This is important work because, tragically, hundreds of people are fatally struck by trains in incidents that could have been avoided, and there are far too many close calls. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data shows there were 422 total fatalities on US railroads last year, the majority of which were trespassing or highway–rail grade crossing incidents.
It isn’t uncommon to witness risky behavior on or near railroad tracks. Have you ever seen a car, pedestrian, or cyclist ignore warnings that a train is approaching and cross tracks anyway? How about those family photos taken on train tracks? In May, I wrote a blog about the dangers of trespassing and risky behavior at rail grade crossings—behavior I witnessed myself on a recent visit to Alaska.
Railroad tracks are private property, and trespassing is not only unlawful, it’s dangerous. In 2014, the NTSB investigated an accident involving a film crew trespassing on CSX tracks near Jesup, Georgia. The actions of the film crew, who were not authorized to film on CSX right‑of-way, resulted in the death of one crewmember and caused injuries to six others when a freight train passed on the bridge where the crew was filming.
Trains have the right of way to pass through highway–rail grade crossings without stopping for road traffic. In fact, it’s our responsibility—the road users—to stop for train traffic. There are both passive and active highway–rail grade crossings. At passive crossings, signage will warn road users to be vigilant when crossing tracks and to look for oncoming trains. At active crossings, often found in more populated areas, flashing lights, audible alarms, and automatic gates will warn of an approaching train. If you are a Waze user, the app will now alert drivers that they are approaching railroad crossings.
Have you ever noticed the blue and white signs posted near grade crossings? The Emergency Notification System (ENS) signs include a phone number and the crossing’s USDOT number so the railroads can be notified of an emergency or warning device malfunction. If, for some reason, you become stuck on the tracks at a grade crossing, immediately get out of your vehicle and move to safety. Then, find this sign to alert the railroad. If you do not see a sign, call 911.
I think it’s also important to mention that September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This year has been challenging for all of us and paying attention to our mental health is more important than ever. There are resources that can help: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available 24/7 for English or Spanish speakers, and for those who are hard of hearing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking support when we’re feeling vulnerable.
Let’s take care of ourselves—and each other—and take rail safety seriously. Remember: trains are heavy, moving fast, and take over a mile to come to a stop. It’s up to us to obey warnings, be vigilant, and stay off the tracks.