Rail crashes take a toll

All too often, a collision with a train is a deadly one. And there is nothing the train engineer can do about it. But, with a little education, railroad crews hope to change the way the public reacts to trains, making crossings a safer place. "By...

An empty boxcar weighs about the same as a two-bedroom house, and can be filled with 300 tons of product. Two or three 200-ton locomotives can be pulling a 120-car train, loaded with 22 tons of fuel. "It's going to take that train longer to stop than what an engineer can typically see down the track," said George Warren, a former Burlington Northern Santa Fe engineer. (Brian Basham/Tribune)

All too often, a collision with a train is a deadly one. And there is nothing the train engineer can do about it.

But, with a little education, railroad crews hope to change the way the public reacts to trains, making crossings a safer place.

"By the time a locomotive engineer sees someone, it's too late for him to change the outcome," George Warren said. "If someone places themselves in the path of a train, it's beyond the engineer's control to help them out of the mistake they're making. He then becomes an unwilling witness to the outcome."

Warren, who served as a train engineer with Burlington Northern Santa Fe for a number of years, also went on to lead Operation Lifesaver for many years. He is nearing retirement as coordinator of the group's field safety support.

Operation Lifesaver was developed in 1972, after an Idaho engineer went through a few close calls and several grade-crossing accidents and felt there wasn't enough education out there for the public about trains and their dangers.


So the engineer and the Union Pacific Railroad developed a program to educate the public on risks and how to be safe around trains.

They were credited with a 30 percent decrease in crashes in Idaho that year alone. The following year, Nebraska held public education sessions as well and had success.

From there, Operation Lifesaver was born, and became a national organization.

"Basically, it's purely a non-profit safety organization," Warren said.

The message delivered depends on the age group being hosted, but Warren said he specifically focuses his time on professional drivers because there are others to teach students during drivers education.

He focuses on the large trucks -- semis, fuel trucks, etc. -- because those collisions can cause a much wider danger.

"When you hit a semi tractor trailer ... you've got 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel locomotive and 50 gallons of sulfuric acid, there's haz-mats (hazardous materials) on the train, let alone what we carry," he said.

All that, and the larger trucks being hit can cause a train derailment.


Two years ago, there were nine fatalities to railroad crew members because of large vehicles getting hit.

"When you see a train, you cannot estimate how quickly it's coming," added Amy McBeth, BNSF public affairs director. "You might think that train is far away, but with the speed it's traveling, it's difficult to judge."

Warren said Detroit Lakes is unique because of the crossing of east-west BNSF and north-south Canadian Pacific. Near the crossing, under the bridge by Highway 59 north, is where the two lines meet, and it is a restricted speed limit through that diamond of 25 mph.

"A typical automobile takes 6 to 8 seconds from a standstill to cross the track under a normal take-off," she said. "A Semi tractor trail pulling a 40-foot trailer, takes 12 seconds."

A train traveling 79 mph that's 1,000 feet away will hit the crossing in less than 8 seconds.

"People misjudge the size of the equipment because it is big," McBeth said. "The railroad tracks narrow down to a point on the horizon that they become a pinpoint, and when a train is quarter of a mile or half a mile from the crossing, it's going to look like they're not moving."

Now, especially in the dark, how can a driver judge the time before impact?

Besides speed, there is size and weight, something the public just doesn't understand, Warren said.


"An empty boxcar weighs about the same as a two-bedroom house."

Then they load it up to 300 tons of product.

Then those cars are connected to a 120-car train. There are two or three 200-ton locomotives with 22 tons of fuel running them. Set that all in motion.

"It's going to take that train longer to stop than what an engineer can typically see down the track," he said. "So, if I can see someone crossing the tracks, it's already too late."

And besides the speed and weight factor, McBeth added that trains obviously have a set path, they can't deviate from the tracks.

Based on a 1934 Supreme Court ruling, trains always have the right of way.

Most crashes happen within 25 miles of home because people drive those same routes, cross those same tracks day-in and day-out. It's habit, it's routine.

"We're right in our own backyard, in our own communities," Warren said. "That's where we tend to, by nature, let our guard down."


When accidents happen

"Following an incident, the train will stop, of course, and the crew will talk to law enforcement," McBeth said. "They might request to take a leave and another crew would come in."

It's difficult for everyone involved when there is an accident on the tracks, but it's particularly hard for the crew that just saw the entire thing and couldn't do anything about it.

Warren said it's a personal matter and declined to share feelings and emotions about the incidents he's been involved with, but he did say, "you don't forget. Things that are beyond your control seem to make it worse."

He said there are incidents when the crew can see what's about to happen but can't stop the train. There are also incidents where a car comes out of nowhere, and hits the side of a train.

After an accident, there are interviews with law enforcement, "and then you start putting together your family, their family, the victim, all of sudden, you're all ... it's just something you never forget."

A locomotive is 11 feet wide.

"If you're not within those 11 feet, how can you get hit? The tracks don't move," he said.


After an accident, crew members are offered counseling and there are peer support groups within their region.

Firsthand experience

From 1988-91, Warren was involved in four incidents as a train engineer.

"One was a double fatality, which really was a problem for me. Another, a guy survived, but for the remaining three years of his life didn't know his wife or his daughter.

"That kind of put me in a situation where I was frustrated. I had become emotionally detached from my (girlfriend) at the time," he said of his future wife. "I was more or less told that if I couldn't get a hold of my emotions, because of my anger, that it wasn't going to work well for us."

In the process, he learned of other co-workers that were talking to the public about crossing safety, and he wanted to get involved.

"I found that that allowed me an area to get some of the stuff off my emotions."

He went through the certification process to speak and educate about train safety, and eventually became a full-time presenter and a trainer of other presenters.


From there, it grew to educating law enforcement as well.

"When you have grade-crossing collisions, you have law enforcement that have never investigated a grade-crossing collision. They are unaware when they show up on railroad property the risks and hazards to themselves, bodily."

So, BNSF created Grade-Crossing Collision Investigation where Warren educated law enforcement about those risks. They got the program post certified so law enforcement can take the classes and get continuing education credits for the class.

"We've had extremely good success on this railroad," he said.

In 2000, they started closing crossings in the name of safety, and next month they are celebrating the closing of the 5,000th grade-closing closure since 2000.

"We've had some really good working relationships with Detroit Lakes," he said, noting the changes made here with the Highway 10 realignment project.

There are three main focuses of the Operation Lifesaver program. One is education, which is the presentation Warren gives and trains others in. Second is engineering. They look at what can be done at crossings to increase safety. Third is law enforcement.

"That's the three-pronged approach we take toward safety on BNSF," he said.

Warren works for Operation Lifesaver, which is the non-profit, but then he also works for BNSF doing field training.

"The goals are the same," McBeth said of the two entities promoting safety.

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