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another view of rail crossing deaths

By enelson
Wednesday, January 30th, 2008 at 11:56 pm in Amtrak, rail, Safety.


Sometimes the most interesting things you find out about something is when you’ve finished writing the story.

Today I got an e-mail from someone who had read my story on the Union Pacific Railroad installing cameras in its locomotives to record railroad  crossing and “trespasser” deaths and lesser accidents and near-misses.

If you saw the story, you might have seen the black-and-white images of a train almost plowing into a big hopper truck, then missing it by what appeared to be a couple feet.

The person who e-mailed me, whom I don’t know at all, so I present what he has to say with that caveat, said he’s done research for families of victims in legal cases vs the railroads:

It is important to consider that juries are made up of ordinary citizens and those citizens bring a certain mindset with them when the case is a RR crossing crash or a pedestrian injury / death on RR property.  If the RR industry can instill in most citizens’ minds that “it’s always the driver’s fault”, then a lot of jurors will be on the RR’s side if called to serve in a civil trial.

 His contention is that more often than you might think, there are problems with signals and train horns and we’re just conditioned to blame it on the deceased every time.

I have to admit it was easy for me to swallow that line when I did that story the other day.

I wrote back to the guy saying I could see his point, but I have witnessed people driving around crossing gates more than once, so I don’t think it’s necessarily propaganda that puts people in that frame of mind.

He presented me with some examples, including this one:

I investigated a crash between an Amtrak passenger train and a car in Charlotte, Michigan, on April 27, 2004.  A mother and her 15 year-old daughter were killed.  Many witnesses told the Charlotte PD that the bells weren’t ringing, the lights were not flashing and the gates were up at the instant of impact.  I drove up there (6 hour trip) and discovered that Canadian National RR, owner of the track, ran a RAIL GRINDER up the track the day after the crash.  A RAIL GRINDER polishes the rails by removing the rust.  Rust (iron oxide) will NOT conduct electricity.  Then, CN didn’t tell the Charlotte PD or the FRA that they had used the RAIL GRINDER.  The witnesses saw the warning devices not working and that proved conclusively that the Track Circuit failed to detect the train.  The reason was simple—rust on the rails preventing the electrical contact between the rails and wheels of the train.  I reported my findings to the Charlotte PD and the Lansing State Journal.  CN paid-off the family and got them to sign a confidentiality agreement.  The FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) “investigated” the crash and, in their final report, claimed there was a “6 second warning.”  That was a complete lie and a cover-up for CN.  That’s so typical of what the FRA does.

Clearly, an e-mail out of the blue is not evidence of much of anything, but it did make me think about how easy it is to blame the victim in these cases.

Graphic from

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9 Responses to “another view of rail crossing deaths”

  1. Doug Faunt Says:

    Err, maybe I’ve spent too much time around uncontrolled grade crossings, but I always look before I cross railway tracks. Do drivers and pedestrians have no responsibility when crossing tracks?

  2. Guy Span Says:

    It is true that rust on the rails may prevent automatic warning devices from detecting an approaching single unit train, such as a high rail inspection truck (a regular road vehicle equipped for rail use), a rail testing car (Sperry Rail Service) or other light rail maintenance vehicles.

    But for a heavy rail passenger train, such as an Amtrak engine and several passenger cars, such detection is automatic, unless the track has seen no service for months. The signals are inspected monthly, with signed forms, and a failure of the system sets the signals to warning position, even in the absence of a train.

    So this nonsense red lines my cow manure meter, having worked in the industry. By the way, such maintenance vehicles that may not trip the automatic warning systems are required to hand flag crossings unless it is seen that the crossing system is indeed working.

    Guy Span

  3. Reedman Says:

    Does anyone have the statistics that say what percentage of trespasser/crossing accidents are suicide-by-train?

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    yes. the Federal Railroad Administration has a site:

  5. Reedman Says:

    It appears the present FRA data is not usable. From the Dept Of Transportation (referenced below):

    “Suicides, as determined by local medical examiners, are not presently required to be reported by railroads to the FRA.”

    But, it appears that it is enough of a problem to warrant a recent research grant:

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Not to be cold and inhuman about it, but suicides disrupt rail traffic and incur costs in addition to the life lost. That says to me that it might be worth studying how to prevent them. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much we as a society are obligated to put up barriers just because people find trains and bridges convenient and/or spectacular ways to kill themselves. Certainly we can better control access to the tops of tall buildings (my colleagues saw someone fall past their windows at the old Tribune Tower), but there are limits to such things. How do you keep people from jumping in front of BART trains, for instance? I’ve seen such barriers for people movers in airports, but I can imagine that the cost would be prohibitive. One could argue that one’s life is more important, but it seems to me that all the barrier would do is force the person to find someplace else to publicly end his or her life.

  7. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I knew someone who jumped in front of a BART train and survived. He was barely injured. His parents said that he did not remember why he jumped. It must have been a random impulse.

    I suppose such events are traumatic for the train operators.

  8. D5446 Says:

    I’ve driven the shortline lumber train through my town dozens of times, and the general observation is that barely anyone in this town gives a fuck about train safety. They will risk anything to get over that crossing before the train does. I kid you not, at the main (active, lights, bells) crossing at the town entrance, i’ve actually had to stop the TRAIN to let motorists clear the tacks so that I can go across. I may be wrong, but doesn’t the railroad always have right of way?

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