Rising death toll spurs rail-safety campaign in Fresno (video)

The Fresno BeeApril 9, 2014 

Six people died in collisions between trains and vehicles last year in Fresno County -- more than the prior three years combined. Two more people died as they trespassed on railroad rights-of-way and were hit by freight trains.

Police say those needless deaths are preventable, the result of driver and pedestrian carelessness when they're on or near railroad tracks. On Wednesday, officers from the Fresno Police Department and the Union Pacific and BNSF freight railroads teamed up as part of Operation Lifesaver to boost enforcement of laws requiring cars and trucks to stop and heed the red lights and blocking arms at at railroad crossings.

Fresno motorcycle officers kept a watchful eye on crossings across the city, occasionally revving up to pull over drivers who raced through to beat the gates coming down as trains approached with horns blaring.

"People don't stop at the tracks because they think it's safe to cross," Fresno PD officer Michael Buessing said as he watched traffic at the Union Pacific crossing on Shaw Avenue near Golden State Boulevard. For cars heading west on Shaw and waiting for a stop signal at Golden State, "there's not enough room and they end up getting stopped and stuck on the tracks."

The consequences can be deadly. "I've gone to the aftermath of numerous collisions, train vs. vehicle. It's not a pretty sight," Buessing said. "The train's never at fault. It's pretty hard to stop a half-mile train full of cargo."

Tim Souza, a Union Pacific police officer, said the railroad and Fresno police team up several times each year for focused enforcement operations that are aimed not so much at writing tickets but educating drivers.

"Officers have the option of citing or warning the driver of the violation," Souza said. "So it's more along the lines of getting the word out, letting the public know that they need to slow down and realize their surroundings."

The massive size of a train -- a modern freight locomotive can weigh 200 tons, plus the mass of the freight on the cars it's pulling -- can be deceptive to drivers and pedestrians when it comes to the speed of the train.

"The biggest danger is when you come up to a crossing and you see if train is coming, the size makes it seem like it's not moving very fast, but it could be moving up to 70 mph," Souza said. "An average mile-long train can take over a mile to stop."

Wednesday's effort came a day after Operation Lifesaver Inc., a national rail safety organization, announced its new bilingual "See Tracks, Think Train" campaign. Operation Lifesaver estimates that a person or vehicle is hit by a train about every three hours in the U.S.

The Federal Railroad Administration reported that in 2013, 908 pedestrians were injured or killed while walking on or near railroad tracks, up from 843 in 2012. At railroad crossings, collisions between trains and vehicles resulted in 1,193 injuries or deaths, up from 1,175 in 2012.

"The real tragedy here is that these accidents are preventable," FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said Tuesday.

"If we take a look at the railroad industry, there has been a tremendous improvement in safety," Szabo said. In recent years, the agency has seen a 50% reduction in most accidents, injuries and fatalities.

"But the exception is trespassing or failing to heed crossings," he added. "That's really alarming for us. We simply have to focus more and more on preventative efforts for illegal trespassing and failure to obey grade-crossing signals."

Operation Lifesaver's new campaign includes billboards, public-service advertising and a website, www.seetracksthinktrain.org, all aimed at promoting safer behavior by drivers and pedestrians when they're near railroad tracks and crossings.

Railroad dangers

The number of train-car collisions at Fresno County railroad crossings has been relatively flat in recent years, but fatalities spiked last year. Fatal incidents between trains and pedestrians fell last year.

At crossings:

2013: 6 incidents (6 deaths)

2012: 6 incidents (1 death)

2011: 7 incidents (1 death)

2010: 7 incidents (1 death)

Pedestrian trespass:

2013: 2 incidents (2 deaths)

2012: 6 incidents (2 deaths)

2011: 7 incidents (1 death)

2010: 7 incidents (4 deaths)

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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