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Towns, train fight over fences -- and responsibility for safety
Rail Safety

Towns, train fight over fences -- and responsibility for safety

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VILLA PARK, ILL. • Tiffany Davis was determined to build the barrier that no one else would. § By age 15, she’d lost two friends in two years to the railroad tracks in this small Chicago suburb. First was 13-year-old Alyssa Gonzalez. Then 14-year-old Kristen Bowen was struck by a freight train as she ran toward a small park.

Other pedestrians have died on the tracks here. Trackside memorials dot the rails, including a wood cross marking the spot where a middle school student was killed and two others injured as they walked home from school years ago. But it was Kristen’s accident in 2006 that spurred Tiffany Davis and shook the town, reverberations that eventually led to another tragedy, this time involving Kristen’s twin sister.

Everyone knew the railroad tracks in Villa Park and neighboring Lombard were a popular shortcut. It had been that way for years. Police could pick out the well-worn paths on satellite photos. The tracks divided neighborhoods and ran past schools and a park. But any talk of blocking access to the busy rails was brushed aside as too difficult and too expensive. Kristen’s death didn’t seem to change that.

“No one stepped up to do anything about it,” Tiffany Davis said.

So she took up the fight. She organized a car wash. She held a concert. She got fencing donated at cost. More importantly, her efforts put pressure on the railroads and city officials after years of foot-dragging. Today, a black, metal rail fence runs along stretches of the tracks, paid for with railroad and public funds. And it seems to be doing its job, local officials say.

What happened in Villa Park and Lombard is an example of how railroads and towns across the nation often battle over how to prevent pedestrian-train accidents, which are now the leading cause of death on the nation’s railroad system.

Experts say the solutions are never simple. But the tactics used to this point haven’t worked. They have made barely a dent in the number of pedestrian deaths on the tracks each year. At the same time, most other measures of railroad safety have improved dramatically, with much of that progress due to tighter regulation.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Archie Burnham, a railroad safety engineer outside Atlanta. “But to me, it’s a fixable problem.”

Railroads have staked out the position they don’t need to take steps to stop people from walking on the tracks. The rails are private property. A person crossing the tracks is trespassing. The railroads might put up “No Trespassing” signs or stage an enforcement blitz. Beyond that, they need to do little. The courts generally agree. And the federal rules governing railroad operations do not require action.

So communities resort to pleading for help.

Tiffany’s father, John Davis, recalled how his daughter’s campaign made him realize that the railroad companies were not going to protect his family. He had to do it. Inspired by his daughter, he got into local politics. He pushed for a law requiring railroads to barricade tracks near parks and schools. He called it Kristen’s Law. State lawmakers paid little attention.

But after Villa Park got its fence, John Davis, now a village trustee, was invited to neighboring towns to give advice on how they could get fences, too. He was surprised. Other communities wanted what Villa Park had. They sounded jealous.

“Other towns were screaming, ‘How come you got it?’” he recalled. “‘Why not us?’”

A horrendous fatality can help. In San Jose, Calif., residents’ complaints about one particularly well-known shortcut over the tracks had been ignored for years. Then, in 2005, an Amtrak train fatally struck a 2-year-old boy as he crossed at that spot with his baby sitter. Public outcry grew. Finally, plans for a publicly financed pedestrian overpass were approved. The bridge, named “Xander’s Crossing” after the dead toddler, opened in September.

In some ways, the struggle over what to do about these accidents mirrors the challenge presented decades ago by railroad crossings. In the early 1970s, crossing accidents were the biggest dangers on the railroad. Then hundreds of millions in public funds were spent upgrading thousands of crossings with automatic lights and gates. Since the early 1980s, crossing accidents have fallen 80 percent.

But stopping people from walking across the rails, what can be done about that?

The three E’s

The answer, say railroads and regulators, is contained in a list of three E’s: education, enforcement and engineering.

Education is mostly Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit group that spreads the message about rail safety. Awareness campaigns can help, experts say. But, as the Post-Dispatch reported Monday, Operation Lifesaver’s funding and staffing have been significantly cut.

Enforcement focuses on anti-trespassing laws and arrests. But the railroads employ relatively few police officers in their corporate departments. Local police, already spread thin, can’t afford to patrol more often. And the specialized training that railroads occasionally provide to local authorities remains focused on grade crossings. In July, when 14 St. Louis-area officers spent 16 hours over two days in a grade crossing and collision investigation class, just 30 minutes was spent on trespassing.

That leaves engineering — restricting access to the tracks using things such as fences or overpasses.

And it is here that the starkest lines between railroads and communities are drawn.

Union Pacific does not favor engineering solutions to trespassing, although it says it works with communities to erect fencing when appropriate. “Engineering focuses on grade crossings,” Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.

Railroads also dismiss fencing because, they say, people determined to cross will do it, such as in cases of suicide. But many experts disagree with that. The same tactics used to stop people from accidentally reaching the tracks can be used to stop those seeking them out, said Dr. Matthew Miller, associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, who has studied suicide prevention methods.

“If you can prevent suicide in the short run, like stopping someone from jumping in front of train, you can prevent suicide in the long run,” Miller said. “Restricting access can save lives.”

The railroads say they can’t restrict access everywhere.

“We can’t fence off the entire system. It’s impractical to do that,” said Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern.

This is a popular sentiment echoed across the industry. With more than 160,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, fencing every mile of railroad right of way would be impossible.

But no one is suggesting that, either.

What is more common is the call for fencing along known trespassing hot spots. “That is not the same as fencing in 10,000 miles of track,” said David Clarke, director at the University of Tennessee’s Transportation Research Center.

Clarke has heard the arguments that partial fencing means people just walk around.

“I don’t necessarily buy that,” he said. “You can make it unattractive enough to cross at a particular point.”

Fencing is about reducing risk, not eliminating it. It’s the same argument with lights and gates at railroad crossings. Vehicles still collide with trains at crossings with gates, but it happens less often.

“So the gate is not 100 percent effective,” Clarke said.

Fences no one can see

The Federal Railroad Administration has tried other tactics.

Currently, the agency has big expectations for a study in West Palm Beach, Fla., which is focused on a stretch of tracks that saw four pedestrian deaths in 2008. Progress has been slow: Researchers complained early on about the lack of data pinpointing where the casualties were occurring. They couldn’t find the hot spots. This longtime weakness in the agency’s accident reporting system was highlighted in an article Monday in the Post-Dispatch.

The agency declined to discuss its Florida study with the Post-Dispatch because the research was ongoing. But a brief update on the project’s progress, published in a conference journal, noted the research team plans to throw everything at the problem, from more Operation Lifesaver talks to more warning signs to adding fences.

The Federal Railroad Administration hopes to use the project to develop national recommendations.

The last time the agency completed such an ambitious research project was in 2004. And the results were mixed.

The project was focused on a railroad bridge in the town of Pittsford in upstate New York. The bridge crossed the Erie Canal and was popular with swimmers during the summer. In June 1997, a girl, 14, and a boy, 16, were fatally struck by a CSX train on the bridge.

Four years later, the Federal Railroad Administration selected the bridge for a demonstration project. Motion-detection cameras were installed on the bridge, sending images to a security company. If the security guard saw a trespasser, an automated announcement over loudspeakers was triggered: “Warning: You are trespassing on private property and are in danger of being struck by a train. Leave the area immediately.”

The cameras seemed effective. The three-year study credited the warning system with preventing four deaths of people facing close calls with trains. But the system remains one-of-a-kind. And CSX is no longer using it.

Nothing can be done

Union Pacific owns the tracks running through Villa Park.

The railroad company also owns the tracks over the Brazos River near Texas A&M University. That’s where college freshman Betsy Helbing fell from a railroad bridge in September 2007.

Helbing was partially paralyzed. In the lawsuit that followed, a Union Pacific executive shared how he believed trespassing was essentially unstoppable.

The railroad bridge, known as Whiskey Bridge, runs over a riverbed popular with fossil hunters. The bridge also was popular with college students who climbed onto bridge supports and watched trains run overhead. It sounds crazy, but it was a long-standing tradition. Helbing visited the bridge with a freshman orientation group. And she was not the first casualty there. The previous year, student Amber Penn had broken her legs in a fall. In 1996, a train fatally struck a 17-year-old girl on the bridge.

After Penn’s accident in 2006, a Union Pacific employee sent an internal email alerting a superior to the danger. “Over the years we have had problems with trespassers getting on that bridge and laying down on the caps while the train goes over them,” wrote the railroad worker, according to court filings. “It is the big thing for (A)ggies to do.”

In another email, a railroad worker suggested putting up a “No Trespassing” sign: “Not that it will keep them off, but it shows we are doing what we are supposed to do to keep trespassers off the bridge.”

Union Pacific’s public safety director Dale Bray testified in Helbing’s case about why the railroad didn’t do more to keep people off the bridge. He was doubtful that signs worked. He didn’t think a fence was the answer. A fence, he said, could actually force people to walk closer to the track.

“So what I would say is, I would not — in my professional opinion and in my position, I would not recommend even to this day a fence where this incident took place,” Bray testified. “I do not believe that it would prevent the trespassing.”

“Do you think that there’s anything that Union Pacific could do to prevent access to pedestrians on that bridge?” he was asked by an attorney for the paralyzed student.

“No,” Bray responded. “I’ll add to that. Nothing reasonable.”

Fencing for cows

Many railroads do fence for livestock, though.

At least 25 states have laws saying railroads are liable for livestock struck by trains along unfenced tracks. Missouri’s fencing law, which has been on the books since at least 1909, is typical.

In Missouri, questions about the law end up going to Joe Koenen, a University of Missouri Extension agricultural business specialist. He is the point man for ranchers wanting to learn about the railroad’s fencing obligations.

Koenen said railroads used to fence extensively outside of populated areas, through miles of crop and timber lands, even in areas where livestock were not known to roam. They’ve cut back some, but there is still plenty of post and wire fencing along the tracks. And the railroads are particular about the work.

“I know several railroads that wouldn’t let ranchers build it themselves,” Koenen said. “They wanted to do it to their specifications.”

To Ken Heathington, a railroad safety engineer who has worked as an expert witness in railroad injury lawsuits, the idea of fencing for livestock but not people doesn’t add up.

Thousands of miles of interstate highway are fenced, he said.

So are airport perimeters.

And power plants — anyplace you don’t want people.

So, Heathington said, to argue that railroads should have fences for livestock, “but it doesn’t hurt to have people in there? That doesn’t make sense.”

Accidental success

The railroad industry has fended off attempts to require fencing along railroad tracks. The last serious attempt at the federal level came more than two decades ago. In 1987, Rep. Thomas Luken, D-Ohio, introduced a bill that included a provision requiring fencing in rail yards “in heavily populated areas in order to prevent injury to nonrailroad personnel.”

Luken’s bill went nowhere. But for the next couple of years, Luken, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, kept plugging away at the issue. He held hearings on whether the railroads should be required to fence tracks running through dense suburbs and cities. That effort eventually died, too.

Some cities have seen success with limited fencing — even when they were not expecting it.

In Moorhead, Minn., the city fenced along the railroad tracks cutting through downtown. So did neighboring Fargo, N.D., just across the Red River.

The 2½ miles of fencing, along with fortified crossings, were aimed at qualifying for a “whistle ban,” allowing trains to skip blowing their horns at each crossing.

The train horns stopped in late 2007 — and, surprisingly, so did the pedestrian railroad accidents.

It had been a problem: In the eight years before the whistle ban, 10 people died walking on the tracks in the counties that are home to Moorhead and Fargo. Just a few months before the fences went up, a train fatally struck a 21-year-old college student in downtown Moorhead. The accidents seemed to just keep happening, said Moorhead assistant city engineer Tom Trowbridge. “It was getting pretty ridiculous.”

But no pedestrians have died inside the whistle zone in the last five years.

“In terms of safety,” Trowbridge said, “it’s been a success.”

No easy answers

Villa Park got its fence, too. So did neighboring Lombard. But it wasn’t easy. Villa Park fenced about 1.5 miles of one side of the track. Lombard did the other side. There are gaps, big stretches where people can cross. Still, the limited fencing seems to be working.

“We’re not having trespassers,” said Joe Menolascino, a Lombard police officer.

“Our numbers have definitely dropped,” said William Lyons, a Villa Park police officer who investigates train accidents.

The fences are not perfect, Lyons said. But they help.

Tiffany Davis is 22 now and living in Texas, years removed from her fence-building campaign in Villa Park. After Kristen Bowen died, Tiffany volunteered with Operation Lifesaver. She talked to her friends about railroad safety. But people kept dying. She can count nine people she’s known who have died along the tracks.

“What else can I do?” she asked.

Her father still lives in Villa Park. He could do without the trains. “They scare the bejesus out of me,” John Davis said. These days, he’s pushing for a pedestrian underpass at one busy intersection.

One block from the railroad tracks sits a modest home. It’s where Kristen Bowen lived. North Ahrens Street dead-ends into the tracks. On the other side is a small park. That’s where Kristen was headed on Feb. 11, 2006.

Kristen’s father Ray Zukowski still lives in that house. After Kristen died, he poured his energy into a website detailing the lives lost along railroad tracks in Illinois. He found some comfort in the changes brought by his daughter’s death.

But nothing seemed to ease the sense of loss for Kristen’s twin sister, Kendra Bowen. In February 2010, days after the four-year anniversary of her sister’s death, Kendra, then 18, sneaked out of the house on the dead-end street. She headed for the tracks.

She walked past the spot where her twin sister died, where a black, metal rail fence now blocked the path. She walked a few more blocks to an open spot and waited in the darkness. A freight train approached. She stepped onto the tracks. The train couldn’t stop in time.

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