By Member Tom Chapman
Each year, Operation Lifesaver, Inc., spearheads Rail Safety Week. For 2021, Rail Safety Week runs from September 20 through 26. Operation Lifesaver and its safety partners across North America, including the NTSB, use this annual event to educate and empower the public to make safe decisions around trains and tracks and to raise awareness of the need for rail safety education.
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data show there were 756 total fatalities on US railroads in 2020. Most of these deaths occurred in highway–rail grade crossing and trespassing incidents. Public awareness and outreach efforts are important because, tragically, hundreds of people are fatally struck by trains in preventable collisions.
I have an especially strong interest in rail safety because, in the early 1950s, my grandfather was struck and killed in a highway–rail grade crossing crash. My grandfather was a volunteer firefighter. He and a colleague were on a call when the collision occurred. The tragedy had a devastating impact on my mother and her family. My mother was a high school student at the time, and the loss of her father changed the course of her life.
At a highway–rail grade crossing, it is our responsibility, as road users, to stop for train traffic. Trains have the right of way and will pass through the crossing without stopping for road traffic. There are two types of grade crossings. At passive crossings, signage will warn road users to be vigilant when crossing tracks and to look for oncoming trains. In more populated areas, you may be more likely to encounter active crossings, which are typically equipped with flashing lights, audible alarms, and automatic gates that warn of an approaching train. When warnings are activated at a crossing, the appropriate and safe action is to stop and wait. Trains are faster than they seem, and they don’t stop on a dime. The average freight train traveling at 55 mph can take a mile or more to stop.
So, what should you do if your vehicle becomes stuck on the tracks at a grade crossing? First, get out of your car. Then, call the number on the Emergency Notification System (ENS) sign posted near the crossing. These blue-and-white signs include a number to call and a US Department of Transportation crossing identification number. If you cannot find the sign, simply call 911. Additional information is included in this brief video produced by Operation Lifesaver. Also, the FRA developed its Crossing Locator App to help you find and call the ENS in case of an emergency or if you have a safety concern about a specific highway–rail grade crossing.
Too often, those who are struck and killed by trains near or on the tracks could have avoided putting their lives in such perilous danger. According to the FRA, more than 400 trespass fatalities occur each year, and the vast majority of them are preventable. An especially tragic example is highlighted in our investigation of a 2014 trespassing accident that involved a film crew near Jesup, Georgia, that was filming on a rail bridge without authorization when a freight train passed. One crewmember was killed, and six others were injured as a result of this preventable accident.
Whether you are taking a shortcut by crossing railroad tracks, or jogging, taking pictures (selfies included), fishing, or riding a recreational off-road vehicle, on or around tracks, you put yourself in imminent danger.
Remember, trains are faster and quieter than you think. They can’t stop quickly. They can’t swerve. They are enormously powerful machines and taking a chance on a collision with a train is risky business.
During this year’s Rail Safety Week, all of us at the NTSB join our friends at Operation Lifesaver in their mission to save lives around railroad tracks and trains. Here’s how you can do your part.
- Know the signs.
- Make good decisions.
- Talk to your loved ones about rail safety.
Together, we can STOP track tragedies. See tracks? Think train.