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Saving lives through railroad traffic enforcement, education

POSTED January 14, 2011 9:43 p.m.

With the goal of making the railroads in Turlock safer, Operation Lifesaver rolled into town Thursday to target railroad related traffic violations.

Operation Lifesaver is a network of volunteers and instructors conducting educational programs on rail safety. Additionally, local and railroad police departments coordinate enforcement efforts to reduce railroad collisions.

Thursday’s undertaking partnered the Turlock Police Department and the Union Pacific Police Department.

Union Pacific used a special train that traveled the length of the railroad tracks that traverse Turlock, while officers waited near crossings and watched for violations. The Operation Lifesaver train travels very slowly and is only a few cars long.  An officer will ride on the train and alert other officers via radio when violations occur. The most common violations are crossing under or around crossing arms and stopped on railroad tracks. The law requires vehicles stop at least seven feet away, even when there is no train coming.

During the three hour operation, the police department handed out 17 citations and made one arrest for driving on a suspended license, said Sgt. Nino Amirfar of the Turlock Police Department.

Operation Lifesaver came to Turlock in part because of four fatalities that occurred in 2010 on the railroad tracks in Turlock. All but one of the fatalities were ruled suicides.

Nationwide, California recorded the highest number of trespassing fatalities with 57 in 2009, the latest year statistics were available from the Federal Railroad Administration. The state also led in highway-rail crossing fatalities and was second for highway-rail crossing collisions.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, pedestrian versus train accidents are the number one cause of death in the railroad industry. Over the last decade train deaths involving pedestrians have fallen 6 percent, while train deaths involving vehicles have decreased by 42 percent, according to the FRA statistics.

The FRA doesn’t track how many of the deaths are suicides. Estimates put the number of train pedestrian suicides at 20 to 50 percent of the total incidents.

“People underestimate the danger level present on a railroad right of way,” said Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt. “They misjudge the speed and think that because it’s hulky they’ll have plenty of time to get out of the way, but really, those trains are moving pretty quickly.”

A railroad right of way refers to the land on either side of a railroad track. It is private property that is owned by railroad companies and usually extends 25 to 50 feet on either side of the track. Anyone in that area without the railroad’s permission is considered a trespasser.

 

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

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