NC leaders seek solutions to train accidents

jspector@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2013 

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Raleigh Police investigate an accident on Hoke Street next to Cargill Inc. after an SUV collided with Amtrak's Carolinian just after 5 p.m., killing the driver on Wednesday February 6, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — 2013 News & Observer Buy Photo

— With the number of fatal train accidents in North Carolina spiking this year, the state hosted a rail safety summit Thursday with law enforcement officers, government officials and public safety advocates.

The goal was simple: to find a way to cut down on train accidents and make railways safer for drivers and pedestrians.

Even before the half-year mark, 15 people have died in train-related accidents in North Carolina this year, compared with 18 fatalities in all of 2012.

Most of the deaths from rail collisions happened to pedestrians who trespassed on the railroad right-of-way. So far this year, nine of the 15 deaths have been trespassers, said Paul Worley, director of the state Department of Transportation’s Rail Division. Someone caught trespassing on the railroad right-of-way – the land around and including the train tracks – can be charged with a misdemeanor, yet many still do it.

And when people choose to cross the tracks, their greatest threat comes from a train’s sheer momentum.

“It can take a mile and sometimes more to stop, and it’s not possible to swerve to miss an obstacle,” said Nelson High, a consultant for DOT’s “BeRailSafe” initiative.

Reasons for entering a railroad area vary – from thrill seekers to joggers to explorers. Secretary of Public Safety Kieran Shanahan said the railroad also attracts adventurers based on its mythical place in the American imagination.

“I remember when I was a kid the railroads had this romantic quality,” he said. “It was a nice place to go make out when you were in ninth grade.”

Dave Thomerson, special agent in charge at the CSX Railroad Police Department, recalled how some trespassers sought out the tracks for aesthetic purposes.

“Their favorite place to take family photos? Right in the middle of our railroad tracks,” Thomerson said.

Drivers in a hurry

Most non-pedestrian deaths happen when drivers disregard or do not notice warnings at train crossings. Sometimes, drivers are in a hurry and choose to drive around lowered barriers rather than wait for the train to pass.

“It’s better to get there 10 minutes late than not at all,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said.

Transportation leaders plan to make physical changes to rail lines as part of a $570 million improvement project between Raleigh and Charlotte, Tata said.

The first step is to identify the most dangerous crossings and to improve the signals or re-engineer the crossings entirely. That could mean raising either the road or the railroad over the other.

The Rail Division also has proposed eliminating 23 rail crossings to cars, Worley said.

Getting the word out

Construction efforts will unfold alongside education initiatives intended to spread the word about railway crossings.

Thursday’s summit concluded with attendees discussing new education approaches, such as adding a mandatory rail safety video to the driver’s ed program or instituting a class for trespassers, such as those DUI offenders must take.

Other suggestions were more speculative, such as finding a way to send text alerts to cellphones near a railway crossing when a train is approaching.

Worley admitted that his division doesn’t have all the answers to the problem, hence the desire to bring different groups together to brainstorm.

“We’re never going to be satisfied until we’re at zero,” Worley said.

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