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Focus Editorial: Don't become a train wreck; show care at rail crossings

Gov. Mark Dayton has proclaimed June to be “Rail Crossing Safety Awareness Month” in Minnesota.

And for good reason.

While the number of highway-rail accidents has dropped dramatically in recent decades, an alarming number of crashes still occur at railway crossings.

In Perham, where trains rush through 24/7 and a person can’t get from one end of town to the other without crossing the tracks, there have been 18 crashes at crossings in the past dozen years.

Statewide, there were 53 highway-rail crossing collisions last year alone, resulting in six fatalities and 26 injuries. There also were 10 pedestrian-trespasser incidents that resulted in five fatalities and five injuries, according to Bill Gardner, Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations director for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

While safety improvements are constantly being made to the state’s crossings, there is still much work to be done.

In a press release, MnDOT and Minnesota Operation Lifesaver offer these tips for drivers and pedestrians when crossing a track:

-Expect a train at any time. You can’t be sure when a train may appear at a crossing, even if it’s one you drive or walk across every day. Freight trains don’t travel on a regular schedule and the schedules for passenger trains can change. Always be alert, because trains can run any time of day or night, on any track, in any direction.

-Don’t be fooled – the train is closer and faster than you think. In the same way that airplanes can seem to move slowly, your eyes can play tricks on you when a train is approaching – an optical illusion that makes a train seem farther away than it really is. It’s easy to misjudge a train’s speed and its distance, especially at night. Don’t take chances. If you see a train, just wait.

-Trains can’t stop quickly or swerve, so be prepared to yield. After fully applying the brakes, a loaded freight train traveling 55 miles an hour takes a mile or more to stop. A light rail train takes 600 feet to stop, and an eight-car passenger train traveling 80 miles an hour needs about a mile to stop. Even if the engineer can see you, it’s too late to stop the train in time to prevent a collision.

-Stop and wait when gates are down or lights are flashing. If the gates are down, the road is closed and you must stop and wait. That’s the law. Continue across after the gates go up and the red lights stop flashing,

-Don’t trespass on foot. Tracks and the property alongside them are private property. Stay off railroad cars and tracks. Don’t trespass. It’s illegal and, too often, deadly. Many pedestrian incidents occur because people trespassed onto railroad property in the right of ways along the tracks.

-Don’t get trapped on the tracks. Never drive onto a railroad crossing until you’re sure you can clear the tracks on the other side without stopping. If your car stalls or is trapped on the tracks, get everyone out right away, even if you don’t see a train coming. Move quickly away from the tracks. If a train is coming, move in its direction as you move away from the tracks. If you run the same direction the train is going, you could be injured by flying debris when the train hits your car.

For more information, go to MnDOT’s rail safety web page or Minnesota Operation Lifesaver’s website. Minnesota Operation Lifesaver is a non-profit organization that provides education to schools, community groups, law enforcement and others.