WENTZVILLE • Not far from where Rick Mooney stood, a teenage boy had been fatally struck by a Norfolk Southern locomotive.
That’s why Mooney was out here on this sweltering day in late August, a few weeks after the accident. He was conducting a safety blitz. He and a handful of others were stopping motorists to give them green-and-white brochures listing safety tips for drivers at railroad crossings, plus a coupon for free ice cream at Chick-Fil-A.
Mooney is the Missouri coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, the nonprofit railroad safety group with chapters across the country. The group is hailed by railroads and regulators for its efforts to educate the public about staying safe around trains.
Railroads point to the group — and events such as this one in Wentzville — as proof that they are working to prevent accidents on the tracks.
But Operation Lifesaver also has been criticized for its board members’ deep industry ties and how, as a Louisiana appeals court noted in 2000, the group “appears skewed in favor of railroads.” The group also has been faulted for not focusing more on pedestrian railroad accidents.
And something else has been quietly happening, too: The railroad industry, even as it touts Operation Lifesaver, has reduced its support of the group’s efforts, documents show.
In the most apparent sign of this, railroads are providing fewer workers to help spread the group’s safety message to schoolchildren and community groups.
Mooney has seen the changes in Missouri.
He joined Operation Lifesaver in 1978, just a few years after the group was launched in Idaho with the help of Union Pacific.
When Mooney was Missouri’s top railroad regulator, he had eight state employees who worked as Operation Lifesaver presenters. Railroads provided employees to work full time with the group.
“Nobody is doing that anymore,” Mooney said.
The state employs just one certified presenter. And the transportation department decided it didn’t need an in-house Operation Lifesaver coordinator after Mooney retired in 2000.
Mooney believes in the Operation Lifesaver message. He doesn’t want to see it fade. So he has continued his duties as a part-time consultant.
The consequences of all these changes have been clear. In the 1980s, Operation Lifesaver conducted about 2,800 safety presentations each year in Missouri, Mooney said.
Now, that number is about 1,000.
His Operation Lifesaver budget has dwindled, too. In 2010, it was $74,000, about half coming from railroads — down 40 percent from four years earlier.
Some states have fared better. Illinois has increased the number of presentations in recent years. So has Kansas.
But dramatic declines in the number of presentations were reported in states such as Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, California and Maryland, according to 2002-2010 data submitted to the national office of Operation Lifesaver. For example, California reported reaching 43 percent fewer people with its presentations.
One railroad worker said he began giving safety talks after he was involved in a pedestrian train accident. But several years ago, his rail company announced it would no longer give workers time off for the presentations.
“They will say they fully support Operation Lifesaver,” said the worker, who spoke on condition his name was not used. “It’s a shame.”
Railroad workers “can’t volunteer as many hours as they used to,” Marmie Edwards said in late August, when she was still the national group’s vice president of communications. “It’s a challenge to us.”
Joyce Rose, who recently took over as Operation Lifesaver president, acknowledged the loss of railroad workers, but she said the organization remains active “even with all the funding challenges.”
Rose pointed to data showing that Operation Lifesaver presentations reached an average of 1 million people each year since 2005. She said she could not provide older statistics for comparison.
In Wentzville, Mooney, joined by a Norfolk Southern police officer and several state patrol officers, handed out brochures to motorists at the Linn Avenue crossing.
But the boy fatally struck by a train here in July wasn’t in a car. Mitchell Maserang, 15, was walking along the tracks wearing headphones when the Norfolk Southern locomotive hit him.
The crossing with its lights and gates is not much of a threat to motorists. But it is the only place to legally cross the railroad tracks for nearly a mile along Main Street. So pedestrians often cross at other spots, too. The tracks are wide open, free of obstructions — aside from the new “No Trespassing” signs erected after Mitchell died.