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another railway statistic

By enelson
Thursday, April 20th, 2006 at 5:55 pm in Misc. Transportation.

The death of 13-year-old Fatih Kuc in Burlingame Tuesday should remind us all of how deadly it is to treat railroad tracks the same way we treat a quiet neighborhood street.

I might argue, having crossed my local freight line only yesterday, there there’s a correlation between speed of the train and fatalities.

After all, a freight train lumbering along at 30 mph is easier to get out of the way of, not to mention a lot noisier than a streamlined commuter train going close to 80 mph.

Don’t you dare say that to Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C. He all but scolded me on the phone today for thinking such a thing, explaining that both the slow-moving freight and the 80-mph Caltrain will leave you just as dead.

“Individuals tend to misjudge the speed and distance of an oncoming train, and that’s because there’s an optical illusion of sorts. Due to its sheer size and mass, a train may appear to be moving much slower than it is,” Flatau told me. “Near an airport, a jumbo jet at 2,000 feet may appear to be going 6 mph, but it’s really traveling at 200.”

And there are factors that your average pedestrian, certainly your average middle schooler with an i-pod, might also not consider. There’s the increasing use of continuous welded rail, which combines with advances in locomotive technology to make for a much quieter approaching train. It’s a boon to the track’s neighbors, if they don’t have kids who walk home from school.

Last year California had more than twice as many such fatalities — not counting suicides — as the next worst state, Texas. Over five years ending in 2005, San Mateo County had 28 unintentional “trespass” deaths, while Alameda got away with 23. Consider that Los Angeles, which is criss-crossed with rail lines from the desert to the sea and has 10 million inhabitants, had 44 such accidents during the same period.

Short of fencing in every mile of railway, about as doable as fencing off every mile of freeway, we’ll never be able to keep reckless adults from ambling to their deaths. But talk to your kids. Tell them to about Fatih. If you need more help convincing them, you should check out Operation Lifesaver Inc.’s Web site at It’s got games and videos, if that’s what it takes to get through to them.


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