2018-02-09 / Viewpoint

Where the rail meets the road

Howard J. Mayhew
U.S. Army Transportation Corps Regimental Safety Office


U.S. Army photo U.S. Army photo Will you be crossing a railroad track today? If so, your life could be in danger.

There are thousands of railroad crossings dotting the more than 160,000 miles of track in the U.S. If you encounter a train inside a railroad crossing, the train will always win. A locomotive weighs 200 or more tons, and that’s not counting the freight cars attached. To make a comparison, a freight train hitting your vehicle is like your car hitting a soda can, but with one big difference — you’re inside!

Think this is a rare occurrence? Think again. Every three hours, a person or vehicle is struck by a train. For example, in 2010, more than 800 people were injured and 260 were killed in 2,004 railroad crossing accidents. More often than not, these collisions occurred when drivers maneuvered around the gates at activated railroad crossings, not realizing an approaching train was less than 20 seconds away.

Fortunately, you don’t have to join the statistics column. Shown below are some simple tips to keep motorists safe where the rail meets the road.

• Trains and cars don’t mix. Never race a train to the crossing. Even if you tie, you lose.

• Flashing red lights indicate a train is approaching from either direction. You can be fined for failure to obey these signals. Never walk around or behind lowered gates at a crossing, and do not cross the tracks until the lights have stopped flashing and it’s safe to do so.

• The train you see is closer and moving faster than you think. If you see a train approaching, wait for it to go by before you proceed across the tracks.

• Be aware that trains cannot stop quickly. Even if the locomotive engineer sees you, a freight train moving at 55 mph can take a mile or more to stop once the emergency brakes are applied. That’s the equivalent of 18 football fields.

• Never drive around lowered gates; it’s illegal and deadly. If you suspect a signal is malfunctioning, call the 1-800 number posted on or near the crossing signal or a local law enforcement agency.

• Don’t get trapped on the tracks. Proceed through a highway rail grade crossing only if you are sure you can completely clear the crossing without stopping. Remember, the train is 3 feet wider than the tracks on both sides.

• If your vehicle ever stalls on a track with a train coming, get out immediately and move away from the tracks and back toward the direction from which the train is coming. If you run in the same direction the train is traveling, when it hits your car, you could be injured by flying debris. Call local law enforcement for assistance.

• When at a multiple-track crossing, watch out for a second train on the other tracks. That train could be approaching from either direction.

• When you need to cross train tracks, go to a designated crossing, look both ways and cross the tracks quickly without stopping. Remember, it isn’t safe to stop closer than 15 feet from a rail.

• Always expect a train. Freight trains do not follow set schedules.

Rail safety is for everyone, not just drivers. Pedestrians and others who choose to walk or play around railroad tracks are at extreme risk of being struck by a train. When I was a child, I used to put coins on the tracks and watch the train flatten them. If I only knew then what I know now. Trains do not make the loud “click-clack” noise as in the past. Modern trains are much quieter. Trespassers who get hit by trains are usually involved in other activities such as riding all-terrain vehicles or motocross bikes, walking down the center of the track while wearing earbuds or conducting physical training.

Pedestrians should keep the following tips in mind when near railroad tracks:

• Railroad tracks, trestles, yards and equipment are private property. If you are in a rail yard uninvited by a railroad official, you are trespassing and subject to criminal prosecution. You could be accidentally injured or killed in a busy rail yard.

• Trains overhang the tracks by at least 3 feet in both directions and loose straps hanging from rail cars may extend even further. If you are in the right-of-way next to the tracks, you can be hit by the train.

• Do not hunt, fish or bungee jump from railroad trestles. There is only enough clearance on the tracks for a train to pass. Trestles are not meant to be sidewalks or pedestrian bridges. Never walk, run, cycle or operate ATVs on railroad tracks, rights-of-way or through tunnels.

• Do not attempt to hop aboard railroad equipment at any time. A slip of the foot can cost you a limb or your life.

• Be aware trains do not follow set schedules. Any time is train time!

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