Finding Solutions to Pedestrian Deaths on Railroad Tracks

When trains strike pedestrians, the people almost die or spend the rest of their lives dealing with the effects of traumatic brain injuries, leg and arm amputations, or other physical disabilities. The only way to avoid such tragedies is to keep people away from tracks, out of grade crossings and off railroad bridges. While that is easy to say, developing and implementing strategies that ensure pedestrian safety around train tracks and railroad rights-of-way have often proven difficult.

Over the weekend of March 23-24, 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board brought together government officials, transportation researchers, law enforcement officers, freight and passenger railroad executives, and light rail operators to discuss the issue the agency calls "railroad trespassing." Stirred to action by a recent rise in fatal accidents involving people walking along or sitting beside train tracks, the forum attendees agreed that a combination of education, engineering and enforcement was required to prevent deaths and dismemberments. 


"See Tracks? Think Train!" :30 Commercial.


The prepared presentations from all the featured speakers at the NTSB meeting are available on the agency's website. The most compelling to me as a Virginia personal injury and wrongful death attorney who has specialized for decades in helping victims of train crashes are the ones that illustrate concrete solutions already being implemented. To note, as NTSB Vice Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt did that

  • Walking along railroad tracks--it’s trespassing.
  • Taking a short-cut across the tracks--it’s trespassing.
  • Sitting on railroad property nearby the tracks--it’s trespassing 

helps no one but the rail corporations and track owners who wish to blame all accidents on victims who the companies can legally blame for "breaking the law."

Much more constructive are discussions concerning, well, construction. The chief of NJ Transit's safety office, for instance, showed numerous pictures of physical barriers that make it difficult for people to enter rail beds from station platforms. The video above was created by a consortium of railroads like CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak to remind people that they must never feel safe on tracks. A U.S. Department of Transportation consultant described encouraging findings from studies of warning systems and automatic train controls that reduce the likelihood of collisions. Fences drew praise as simple discouragements to walkers.

Simply put, nothing will guarantee no one ever gets onto railroad tracks in the wrong place at the wrong time. It remains incumbent on government regulators and rail companies, then, to prevent such behavior to the maximum extent possible. Making railroad rights-of-way inaccessible to all but the most determined individuals has to be the first step. While more technology-intensive solutions exist and are being investigated, a long stretch of chain-link fencing kept in proper repair is often enough.


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