When 14-year-old Cam Vennard was fatally struck by an Amtrak train in Kirkwood in May, he was not the first person to die on the railroad tracks in this prosperous suburb. He wasn’t even the first from his middle school. Kendal Krueger, 13, had been killed years earlier by a freight train just a bit farther up the line.
And since Kendal’s death in 1996, at least 10 other pedestrians have died along this one set of railroad tracks in the St. Louis area alone. Among the deaths were a 10-year-old boy in Maplewood and a 22-year-old mother in Ballwin.
These tracks, owned by Union Pacific, are among the busiest in Missouri, carrying up to 60 trains a day, some running through dense suburbs at highway speeds. The tracks are mostly open and accessible. People shouldn’t be on them, but they often are. And the collisions keep occurring.
Kendal’s parents wanted the accidents to stop. A few weeks after their son died, the boy’s parents begged Union Pacific for help. They had no thoughts of suing. They knew their son bore some responsibility. But they believed the railroad needed to do more to prevent these accidents, such as installing fences. Union Pacific said no. The boy’s parents were stunned.
“The railroads want to blame the trespasser,” Ken Krueger, Kendal’s father, says now, “but they take no blame themselves.”
The Kruegers’ experience is not unusual. Railroad companies across the country at times refuse to take even small steps to deal with the problem of people walking on their tracks, a Post-Dispatch investigation found, based on more than 90 interviews and a review of thousands of pages of regulatory filings, court documents and industry publications. Some railroads defend their right to run trains with little concern for what may lie ahead. And for regulators, these types of accidents largely fall into a blind spot.
The result is that pedestrian railroad accidents are now the leading cause of death on the rails. More than 7,200 pedestrians have been fatally struck by trains in the United States since 1997. An additional 6,400 have been injured. Each year on average about 500 are killed. In the first nine months of 2012, the number of pedestrian railroad deaths jumped 10 percent, while the number of all other railroad fatalities fell.
Even more startling: Based on the miles driven each year, pedestrians are killed by freight and passenger trains at many times the rate they are killed by motor vehicles.
Despite this, railroads have objected to efforts by regulators to learn more about the collisions. They have admitted to ignoring obvious signs of people walking on their rails. They have at times failed to brake or even slow down significantly when they do spot people in a train’s path. At the same time, they take credit for safety education efforts that have seen funding and staffing slashed.
“Railroads don’t want any legal exposure, so they don’t accept any responsibility,” said Harvey Levine, a former vice president of the Association of American Railroads, who toward the end of his career with the trade group became alarmed by the industry’s safety record.
No one doubts that the victims bear some culpability for these accidents. People shouldn’t be on the tracks. Studies estimate 20 percent to 30 percent of the deaths are believed to be suicides. And people walking on the rails are sometimes distracted. Cam, for example, might have been listening to music on his earphones, reducing the chances he heard the train’s horn.
Just last month, a 19-year-old St. Louis woman was among three Earlham College students struck by a freight train as they walked on the tracks in Richmond, Ind. One student, from Burlingame, Calif., was killed immediately. Lenore Edwards of St. Louis died two weeks later.
To the railroads, the solution is simple.
“The incidents would have been avoided if the persons were not trespassing on railroad property,” Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.
But that does not mean the deaths need to happen.
The railroads’ legal responsibility for deaths and injuries is limited by laws and regulations that regard almost anyone on the tracks as a criminal trespasser — whether they are taking a shortcut or walking to school, whether they are toddlers or drunken middle-age men, whether an isolated case or part of a trend.
Keeping people off the tracks is difficult, said David Clarke, director of the University of Tennessee’s Transportation Research Center, who has served as an expert witness in railroad accident cases.
“But honestly, the railroads don’t seem to make a whole lot of effort to do it,” Clarke said.
One tactic, say experts and regulators, would be focusing resources on the “hot spots” where people most frequently cross. But finding those locations has been hampered by lax incident reporting standards.
For years, railroads told federal regulators only the county where trespassing casualties occurred. So regulators had no way of knowing that Cam and Kendal were killed in the same town, or that a single railroad line was the scene of repeated fatalities. And when regulators recently pushed to tighten reporting rules, railroads complained.
State and federal officials mostly lack the power to require safety improvements to address the problem of people walking on the tracks. In fact, many states have stricter rules on keeping livestock off the rails than people, leading to the odd scenario where a railroad could be liable for a fatality if it’s a calf, but not a child.
“It’s stunning how railroad companies turn their backs on these cases,” said Eugene Bolin, a lawyer in Edmonds, Wash., who has represented children hit by trains.
Deaths in ones and twos
For decades, the leading killer on the railroad involved cars and trucks at grade crossings. But no more. Following a public outcry in the early 1970s, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to fortify crossings with flashing lights and automatic gates. Drivers were targeted with education campaigns. Crossing deaths today have plummeted to a fraction of what they once were, and since 1997 trespassing deaths have held the lead.
But railroad pedestrian fatalities don’t attract the same attention as crossing accidents or derailed locomotives. There are no images of crumpled pickups or flipped rail cars. The victims are “trespassers,” a legal term that carries a whiff of malicious intent. Yet, federal regulators acknowledge many trespassers are people just out for a walk.
These deaths come in ones and twos, slipping below the radar of outrage.
“There’s a whole bunch of private tragedies going on,” said Ian Savage, a railroad economist at Northwestern University.
The focus on vehicle crossings has come at a cost.
Consider what has happened in Kirkwood, a place whose history is intertwined with trains. The town was named for a railroad engineer. Two major rail lines cut through it. When Amtrak threatened to close the stone train station in the heart of downtown, local officials kept it open with volunteers.
Kirkwood has nine vehicle railroad crossings. Most have been guarded by lights and gates for decades. Then the town began making its crossings even more secure so it could qualify for a “whistle ban,” allowing trains to skip blowing their horns at each intersection.
Those safety improvements seemed to have worked. No motorist has died at a railroad crossing in Kirkwood since at least 1975, according to federal records.
But away from the fortified crossings, Kendal was killed. And Cam. Before those boys, an 82-year-old woman was fatally struck by a BNSF train when her shopping cart got stuck on the rails in 1993.
Two weeks after Cam died, a young girl came so close to being struck by a Union Pacific freight train in downtown Kirkwood that the train made an emergency stop.
“I go out there all the time and warn people off the track,” Amtrak station manager Bill Burckhalter said.
He’s not seeing hobos and the homeless. Burckhalter finds wedding photographers posing groups on the rails. He sees grandparents showing children how to place coins on the tracks. He sees people taking shortcuts.
“I don’t think people realize the railroad track is private property,” he said.
Yet, the issue of trespassing almost never comes up at the quarterly safety meetings attended by representatives from railroads and state and local governments, Burckhalter said.
Eric Curtit, railroad administrator for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said he can’t remember the last time the safety group discussed people walking over the tracks. His agency enforces state laws on railroad operation and safety. It decides which crossings get lights and gates. But that’s it. The agency doesn’t take action on trespassing issues, Curtit said.
“Trespassing is a railroad issue,” he said. “How they keep people off that property is up to them.”
Blame comes early
Only federal regulators have the authority to fully investigate trespassing injuries and deaths. Yet they almost never do. The Federal Railroad Administration views trespassing cases as “local law enforcement issues,” said spokesman Michael England.
The federal agency is not going to get involved in local issues “especially when the cause of the incident is obvious (You can’t get hit by a train in Starbucks),” England said in an email to the Post-Dispatch.
Local police are limited in what they can do to investigate. Trains carry black-box event recorders, like those on airplanes, which are essential to determining when a horn was blown and how fast the train was traveling. Many locomotives also are equipped with video recorders, like those in police cruisers. But only federal officials have access to that evidence. Local police sometimes even turn to corporate railroad police for help with investigations.
From the start, the blame falls on the trespasser.
The word of the railroad carries so much weight in these cases that after a 2-year-old boy was killed by a Kansas City Southern freight train in 2003 when he wandered onto a straight stretch of track outside tiny Drexel, Mo., authorities never noted inconsistencies in what the railroad claimed took place. The locomotive engineer initially said he “saw something ahead and I hit the brakes,” but couldn’t stop in time, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol report.
The police report noted the locomotive’s horn and headlights were working. But without access to the train’s event recorder and video camera, police had no way of knowing if the horn was sounded or if the brakes were applied at an appropriate distance — or what really was on the tracks.
The boy, Joseph Howell, lived with his family next to the rail line. His mother, Jodi Howell, told police she thought the toddler, one of five children, had gone with his father. She estimated she last saw her son five minutes before hearing the shriek of the train’s brakes. The Bates County prosecutor charged her with felony child welfare endangerment.
Kansas City Southern reported a different scenario to federal regulators. The railroad claimed the engineer blew the horn to move a pack of dogs. The railroad wrote in a brief account to the federal agency:
“When dogs moved, a small child was in between tracks, could not be seen because of dogs. Could not stop train. Child was struck by lead unit and thrown clear of.”
The Bates County prosecutor’s office said recently it never heard that story. Neither did the highway patrol. Kansas City Southern said it would not discuss specific incidents.
“I’ve never heard that,” Jodi Howell’s criminal attorney, Joe Hamilton, said recently. “What were they, Saint Bernards? That’s not believable to me. That sounds like they were trying to cover their ass.”
Without that information, all Hamilton could do was get the boy’s mother a plea deal. She avoided jail time. But no one investigated the actions of the railroad.
No slowing down
Track speed limits, which are set by the Federal Railroad Administration, do not take into account whether the rails run past neighborhoods or schools. State and local officials can try to go beyond the federal rules and impose slower speeds in dangerous areas, but they must overcome “an extremely high legal standard.” The rule book used by most railroads to guide train operations also says nothing about going slower in places with known trespassing risks.
Sometimes, even what is happening directly on the tracks doesn’t seem to matter.
After two young girls were killed by an Amtrak train on a trestle in Kent, Wash., an Amtrak supervisor testified in 2003 that trains operate with an “inherent right” to go the posted track speed. In that case, the train’s engineer had been warned five minutes before the crash by a passing freight train that two girls were playing up ahead.
As the Amtrak train bore down, the girls, one of whom had cerebral palsy, were running to get off the trestle in time. With a track limit of 80 mph, the Amtrak train slowed from 79 to 65 mph as it neared the span over the Green River, according to court records. The emergency brakes were never applied. Rachel Marturello, 11, and Zandra Lafley, 13, ended up dying a few feet short of the trestle’s end — and safety.
“Is it true,” an attorney for the two girls’ families asked during a deposition, “that an Amtrak engineer is not required to prevent a fatality with respect to a pedestrian or trespasser even though it’s possible for them to do so?”
“The way the book is written there is not a requirement,” replied Timothy Branson, an Amtrak regional superintendent.
Another Amtrak regional manager testified that slowing or stopping the train for every pedestrian on the rails was impossible.
“I think if an engineer slowed down or stopped every time he thought something might happen,” Kurt Laird said, “we wouldn’t get the train from point A to point B.”
Asked recently about the Kent case, an Amtrak spokesman said all Amtrak engineers operate in compliance with federal regulations.
And it’s not just Amtrak. A Union Pacific engineer testified he never touched the locomotive’s brakes before colliding with a mother and daughter walking on the tracks in El Paso, Texas, in 2002. He down-shifted the throttle. He blew the horn. He said he always expected Flora Torres, 40, and her daughter Haide, 8, to get out of the way.
He and the conductor saw the pair on the rails from an estimated 1,700 feet away, far enough to stop the train before the collision, according to court testimony. But they testified they could not tell for certain they were people because the mother and daughter carried colorful parasols to block the summer sun.
The engineer was asked in court if he was disciplined by Union Pacific for failing to use the brakes. No, the engineer replied.
Did he violate any railroad rules? No.
Davis, the Union Pacific spokesman, told the Post-Dispatch that all train crews are taught to use brakes “as the circumstances warrant as each situation is unique.”
The day Cam Vennard died, his dad was at the grocery, his mom on a walk. Cam had just started summer break. It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon. He left the house to meet friends at a deli in downtown Kirkwood. He took a shortcut along the tracks that is popular with children and teens. He had taken it many times. It cut his trip in half.
Passenger trains like Amtrak’s are relatively quiet, without a freight train’s weighty rumble, a factor that came up when Cam’s death was discussed by St. Louis County’s child fatality review board.
According to the police report, the Amtrak train was going 46 mph. The train engineer would later tell police he blew the horn when he spotted the boy. When the train was only about 100 feet away, the engineer finally slammed the emergency brakes. Cam spun around seconds before the collision.
Cam, 14, wasn’t carrying any identification. Authorities didn’t know his name. But he had a cellphone. A police officer used it to find a number listed as “home.” The officer used that to find an address.
Two officers then drove to the house on Lennore Avenue. Cam’s father was working in the yard. He was shown the phone. The father wasn’t sure if it belonged to any of his three sons.
Standing with police, he dialed Cam’s number.
The phone in the officer’s hand began to vibrate.
Several months after his son’s death, Darryl Vennard remained stunned by two things: the tremendous support his family received from the community and the complete silence from the railroads.
He can’t believe that trains are allowed to travel up to 50 mph through his neighborhood, next to residential streets with 25 mph speed limits. He never had given much thought to the tracks. Now it felt like the only thing on his mind. He wanted the railroads to take some measure of responsibility.
First it was Kendal. Then it was Cam. The father wants it to end there. He doesn’t want another parent to suffer like this.
“They’ve got to do something,” he said. “It’s going to happen again.”
He was right. Just hours after Cam died, another teen was killed by a train, this time in Maryland.
Coming Monday: Railroads have fought efforts
to study where collisions occur most frequently.