- The only safe place to cross railroad tracks is at a public crossing — designated by the crossbuck.
- Turn your cell phone and MP3 players off when you're near train tracks. Forget texting, as it could be a deadly distraction near the tracks.
- Look both ways and listen before crossing train tracks. Expect a train at any time.
- Anywhere other than a public crossing, stay off and away from the tracks.
- Tracks, trestles, rail yards and equipment are private property. If you hunt, fish or ride your ATV on the tracks, you are trespassing on private property. Besides being fined, you could lose your life.
As witnessed in the tragedy that took Miguel Sanchez’s life on a railroad line in Turlock, the danger of entering a railroad right of way can have disastrous consequences.
Sanchez, 26, of Keyes, was killed Aug. 14, along the railroad tracks between Fulkerth Road and Front Street. The circumstances around his death remain unclear. The train crew reported they first spotted Sanchez lying unresponsive a few feet from the tracks and the Turlock Police Department said there were no signs of foul play at the scene. Sanchez had been drinking prior to the accident, but according to his friends, he was not so intoxicated that he couldn’t take care of himself.
Whatever led up to Sanchez’s death, Union Pacific’s spokesperson Aaron Hunt said it should serve as a somber reminder of the catastrophic consequences of not recognizing the massive force and power of trains.
“People underestimate the danger level present on a railroad right of way,” Hunt said. “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 is never a safe place to be,” Hunt said.
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.
Hunt emphasized that walking in a railroad right of way can be just as dangerous as strolling down the tracks.
“The cart size can vary from car to car,” he said. “The clearance needed around a train is significant, which is why it is so crucial to stay away from them.”
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.
In the last eight months there have been four deaths on a four-mile stretch of tracks in Turlock. Of those, three were ruled suicides.
Part of the danger of being in a railroad right of way, Hunt says, is that people believe the sounds and rumble of an approaching train will give them ample time to get out of harm’s way, but that is a misconception that can be met with deadly results.
A number of factors can subdue the noise of an approaching train, including pedestrians listening to music or talking on cell phones.
The advancements in the structure of railroad tracks have also made for quieter train. Because they are generally longer and smoother than they used to be, the traditional clackty-clack sound signaling a train is approaching is a thing of the past.
Another contributing factor is the “quiet zones” that some towns have enacted. This prohibits trains from blasting their horns during certain times of the day.
“Something as simple as wind direction can muffle the noise of a moving train,” Hunt said. “People also think they would feel a train approaching through the rumble of the tracks. Where the train wheel and track meet, it’s a diameter of a dime. This is what makes trains fuel efficient and that lack of friction minimizes the vibrations that are sent down the tracks.”
It also takes a train a considerable distance to stop even when the emergency brake is pulled. The FRA states that a train going 60 mph will continue traveling at least one mile after an emergency brake is pulled before it will come to a rest.
That inability to stop on a dime or veer from a course means that train crews are helpless to stop the tragedies playing out in front of their eyes.
“It’s a very traumatic experience and can have long-term effects of the train crews,” Hunt said.
In the quest to raise railroad safety awareness and decrease the number of incidents, Operation Lifesaver was launched in 1972. The campaign partners with the railroad companies to help educate the public about the basic safety principles of railroads. Operation Lifesaver and Union Pacific will be visiting Central Valley cities in September as part of Railroad Safety Month.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.