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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Alan Dryer: Let’s be smart about railroad safety

By Alan Dryer BNSF

It’s easy to forget that something is deadly, when you live with it for a long time. We especially might not notice that the danger increases over time. A familiar kitchen knife can still slice a finger, a stressed family dog can still bite, and the train you hear at a distance can still cause harm.

Some people think that train deaths are foreseeable. We wonder, how could you be accidentally hit by something as big and loud as a train? So we take the dog for walks on the tracks, we cross them to our favorite spot on the river, we try to “beat it” by dashing a few yards through a crossing.

But over and over again, we’re wrong. About every three hours a person or vehicle in the U.S. is hit by a train.

Because yes, a train can sneak up on you. Our eyes trick us to see trains as slow and far away, but it’s an optical illusion. They aren’t slow, we just can’t see how fast they are because they are big at a distance. Because we assume we’ll see them coming, drivers and pedestrians get overconfident. One out of every four car collisions is the result of the car driving into the train–not the other way around.

Trains are big, heavy, fast and extremely hard to stop. It takes more than a mile to stop a train because they weigh between 12 and 20 million pounds. The next time you’re at a train crossing, look down the track and find a point about 18 football fields away. Can you even see the point where the emergency breaking would have to start in order to stop at your intersection? And unlike a car, a train can’t make even a minor course correction.

Crossing train tracks, anywhere other than a designated pedestrian or roadway crossing, is dangerous and illegal. There are laws, signs and fences to keep people off private railroad property. This includes no trespassing, loitering or engaging in recreational activities (jogging, taking photos, hunting or fishing) around highway-rail grade crossings and tracks.

Each death is mourned by the entire BNSF organization, and we are committed to preventing collisions, injuries and fatalities. Both accidental and intentional deaths are painful tragedies to train engineers and crew. We are proud of the work we do to move freight around the country. Especially in this time of COVID-19, when there has been so much disruption to food, protective equipment, and sanitation supply chains, our people have worked hard to keep the country comfortable and safe.

Washington Operation Lifesaver is a free railroad safety program offered to schools, organizations and events. BNSF is an enthusiastic supporter of WAOL. Each year BNSF and Operation Lifesaver volunteers, many of whom were trained by BNSF, give numerous classes on grade crossing safety. BNSF has also invested millions of dollars to improve safety measures at grade crossings and to limit access to railroad tracks.

Here are some safety tips to make sure we all stay safe this summer:

• Trains are always closer and moving faster than they appear.

• Trains are more quiet than ever. Wearing headphones makes it virtually impossible to hear an approaching train.

• Trains cannot stop fast enough to avoid collision. It may take a train over a mile to come to a complete stop.

• Railroad bridges and tunnels are extremely dangerous. Railroad bridges are not diving platforms. Never walk on a bridge or enter a tunnel.

• Don’t stand or stop a vehicle close to tracks when a crossing gate is down. Trains overhang the tracks by at least three feet in both directions and loose straps hanging from rail cars may extend even further.

• Trains do not run according to a strict timetable. Always expect a train at each road-rail intersection.

• Trains can move in either direction at any time on multitrack sections. Even as one train passes, another could be coming from the opposite direction.

• Don’t assume railroad tracks are unused. If there are rails on the railroad ties always assume the track is in use.

• Cross train tracks only at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings, and obey all warning signs and signals.

No one cares more, and works harder, to prevent railroad accidents than the train crew inside the cab of a locomotive. Let’s be smart about railroad safety and make this summer the safest ever.

Alan Dryer is deputy police chief for BNSF police in Spokane.