As you approach an intersection, you see flashing red lights and hear a bell alerting drivers that a train is approaching. You take a quick peek and see that the train is still several thousand feet away and you think, ‘surely I have enough time to beat it.’ Think again.
Trains can be deceptively silent and fast. Consider this — a loaded freight train can be in excess of one mile in length and can travel at speeds near 50 MPH. In a critical situation, once the emergency brakes are engaged, it can take over a mile to stop and there is no such thing as swerving. By comparison, it takes an average passenger vehicle 200 feet to stop in an emergency.
Every year there are more than 2,000 motor vehicle/train collisions and sadly, many of these events could be avoided.
In some circumstances people become accustomed to travel patterns and think they know where and when trains operate. But this is a fallacy – schedules change and, importantly, trains can operate in either direction which can take drivers (and pedestrians) by surprise.
In other cases, people may not have been taught railroad safety. Here are the facts: In the United States every five days a child between the ages of 0 and 19 dies after being struck by a train. Though they are not drivers, they learn from those around them. And despite these sobering and heart-wrenching statistics, more than half of parents surveyed in a 2019 rail safety study indicate that they engage in risky behavior near the tracks with many admitting to driving around gates or trespassing.
Public education, engineering, enforcement and other countermeasures have had a statistically significant impact on changing behavior, ultimately reducing the number of collisions between trains and vehicles by 83% over a 45 year period of time (12,000 collisions in 1972 versus 2,100 in 2017).
No discussion of such tragedies is complete without asking this — what about the train operator? Powerless to rapidly stop the train, the engineer watches in horror as the unavoidable plays out. In fact, recent reports indicate that nearly half of railroad operating employees will be involved in a critical incident over the course of their career. It is not just the individual driver who is impacted by decisions made while behind the wheel.
So what can we do? On a personal level we can maintain situational awareness (always anticipate an approaching train), follow the law, and only cross at designated locations when it is safe to do so. And in the event that your car stalls on the tracks, immediately get out of the car and put distance between yourself and the tracks and call the authorities.
When you are tempted to “beat the train” stop and think again.
San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. Her column appears every first Thursday of the month.