Letters to the Editor

A race nobody wins

Re September Amtrak/vehicle collision in Saint Stephen

According to the Federal Railroad Administration and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, there are more than 2,000 incidents per year in the United States involving vehicle and train collisions at both public and private crossings. As a result, approximately 300 fatalities are recorded annually. During daylight hours, more than 75 percent occur where the train hits the vehicle. At night, more than 50 percent occur where the vehicle hits either a moving or stationary train. Signal failure accounts for less than 2 percent of these incidents. The overwhelming cause is simply human error.

These crossings consist of two types of protection devices, active and passive. Active crossings include flashing red lights with or without bells or flashing red lights with bells and gates designed to regulate traffic control. They are specifically calibrated in accordance with both train speed and speed limits. Active crossings also include a battery backup which initiates the device should a failure occur in the track circuit due to a broken or fractured rail.

Passive crossings do not have any type of traffic control device. The decision to stop or proceed rests entirely in your hands. Passive crossings require you to recognize the crossing, search for any train and decide if there is sufficient clear space to cross safely. Passive crossings have yellow circular advance warning signs or pavement markings and crossbucks to assist you in recognizing a crossing.

Some may wonder why all crossings don’t have active traffic control devices installed. It is more than just dollars and (sense). It is not the sole responsibility of the railroad to provide such protection. Once a town/city applies for active protection, each location must have a survey done for qualification purposes. The municipality contacts the railroad and, if approved, will agree on the type of protection to be provided and how it will be funded. The railroad is usually assigned the maintenance due to trespassing regulations. Passive protection typically ranges from $1,200- $2,000 as compared to active protection ranging from $125,000-$250,000 per unit.

Regardless of the type of protection device, these crossings are always dangerous. Every crossing should be approached with the expectation that a train is coming. You are required by law to slow down, look and listen for an approaching train, and be prepared to stop. In all circumstances, you are required to yield the right-of-way to the train.

Maximum authorized speed for a passenger train is 79 mph and 55 mph for a freight train. Train speed varies depending on geographic location. Locomotives vary in size and weight but most exceed 200 tons. Train size and length varies as well, with some freight trains extending up to 2 miles and weighing over 20,000 tons. The stopping distance required is simply incalculable, even under lower speed conditions.

Over 90 percent of our nation’s rail system was installed prior to roads being built. As towns and cities emerged, road construction intersecting these rail lines became necessary and inevitable. Our nation’s railroads hauled nearly 2 billion ton miles in 2011, including millions of tons of hazardous materials. They can haul one ton of freight 500 miles on a gallon of fuel compared to 50 miles via tractor-trailer. When a vehicle/train collision occurs, the potential for loss of life and environmental catastrophe becomes very real. This holds true for members of the train crew as well.

Many believe the vehicle occupants are the only losers. As a former freight conductor for over 30 years, I have personally witnessed numerous tragic encounters with livestock, pedestrians and vehicles of all types. While rare, some of these vehicle/train collisions have resulted in the train being derailed and causing serious injury and death to fellow train crew employees.

As we travel inland, please remember a few basic guidelines when approaching a railroad crossing:

Never race a train to a crossing. Reduce speed. Stop, look and listen. Don’t expect to hear a train. Don’t rely on signals alone. Double tracks require double check. Use common sense. Arrive alive.

The writer lives in Pawleys Island.