The Federal Railroad Administration’s position on fencing is hard to pin down.
Among its duties, as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, are enforcing safety rules and conducting safety research.
The agency appears to agree with the industry it regulates that fencing is not effective at stopping railroad trespassing. Or, at least that was the agency position published on its website until the Post-Dispatch inquired about it this summer.
The agency puts out a railroad trespassing fact sheet. The most recent version, dated December 2008, calls the widespread use of fences “impractical” and limited fencing applications “ineffective.”
That’s not how the agency always saw things. In an older version of the fact sheet, dated March 2008, it didn’t offer any opposition to fencing. In fact, it noted, “The railroads bear the most responsibility in preventing trespassers from entering their property.” By year’s end, that sentence was removed. It was replaced by wording that called stopping trespassing only “a significant concern for railroads.”
Then, in August, a few weeks after the Post-Dispatch asked the agency about the fact sheet, it disappeared from its website. Agency spokesman Michael England said this was just part of a periodic update and review. Plus, he said, the vast changes in wording “don’t reflect changes in policy.”
The agency does seem to hold differing views on fencing. One agency official, when pressed on how regulators reached their conclusions on the effectiveness of fencing, said via email: “There has never been any evidence to support that it is (I challenge you to find some). If fencing were the silver bullet that prevented trespassing deaths, don’t you think every railroad would do it?”
But others at the agency see some role for fencing.
“My experience really shows there are certain locations where properly maintained fencing can help,” said Ron Ries, director of the agency’s Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Division.
In either case, the agency does not have the power to require railroads to install barriers to prevent pedestrian access.
But it is trying other tactics. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration co-sponsored the Right-of-Way Trespass Prevention Workshop. The event had been held once before, four years ago. This time it was in St. Louis.
Officials from industry and government met for three days. The Post-Dispatch was not allowed to attend.