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Departments : Behind the Wheel

Rail Accident Sites Offer Serious Safety Hazards

Physical, chemical and biological hazards are obstacles officers often encounter at railroad accident scenes.

September 01, 1996  |  by Randall C. Resch

On Sept. 28, 1989, a fire truck from the Catlett, Calif., Fire Department was struck by an Amtrak passenger train as the truck crossed a rural railroad right-of-way while responding to a vehicle fire. The fire truck was totally destroyed, and two firefighters aboard were killed.

Our profession as police officers places us in that special category of first respon­ders. We often respond to accident scenes where community members have, through stupidity or misfortune, tangled with trains or trolley systems. In all cases, the train wins. Train accidents create fatal results 30 times that of typical vehicle accidents. These accidents occur when drivers disobey warning devices and cross railroad tracks before the train enters the crossing. And suicide is a common result of cross­ing accidents.

In direct relation to the rising number of driver fatalities during rail accidents, Operation Lifesaver was established in 1972 with the express purpose of educating the public and assisting emergency agencies who deal with train related incidents. The message is simple-railway accidents can be reduced through the "Three Es:" Edu­cation, Engineering and Enforcement.

The common safety phrase in public awareness is "stop, look and listen." Offi­cers can develop local programs in their communities by helping educate the pub­lic of the many dangers at railroad right-­of-ways.

Engineering is the modification of systems to make crossings as safe as possible. Crossings must be upgraded when hazardous conditions arise due to increased traffic or community growth. When hazards are observed, police officers must take the time to identify, inspect and notify railroad companies by submitting written requests, or immediately contact them through police dispatch. Written reports take time to be channeled to the correct department. When hazards present noticeable danger, contact and response must be immediate.

Railroad tracks and their easements are considered private property. Unauthorized vehicles and pedestrian traffic is not allowed. Frequently, crimes such as theft, vandalism and the illegal boarding of trains will occur on rail property. Officers are urged to increase enforcement of trespassings on railroad properly by enforcing state and local ordinances. Operation Lifesaver can assist your agency with the development of a specific enforce­ment program.

Emergency Response Requirement

Police officers are generally those first dispatched to train involved incidents. A psychological danger called "sirencide" exists when officers fall into a "rescuer" mode, forgetting about additional dangers and safety during their approach. Tunnel vision often captures first responders and they do not see the "big picture." Operation Lifesaver suggests officers responding to accident scenes should remember that:

(I) Most trains do not run on a fixed schedule. Expect trains to approach from either direction at any time.

(2) Don't get trapped on a crossing. Do not drive across tracks unless you will clear the tracks. Once you commit yourself to crossing, do not stop for any reason, even if you see a train coming.

(3) Get out of your vehicle if it stalls and get clear of the tracks if a train is coming. If no train is coming, post look­outs and try to push the vehicle from the tracks.

(4) Watch for a second train coming from either direction after the last car from a visible train has passed.

(5) Never drive around crossing gates. Stop and wait until the crossing arms have risen and the warning lights and bells have ceased.

(6) Never try to judge a train's speed or distance.

(7) Be especially alert at night for highway rail crossing warning signs.

(8) Contact your emer­gency dispatcher or the local railroad office if a train is blocking a crossing and you must get through.

Stopping a Train-Procedures

Officers should stop railway traffic only when its contin­ued operation would be hazardous to persons or property. Stopping distances vary due to the size, length and load of trains, and the percent of grade. Trains may require up to two miles before coming to a complete stop.

When a train must be stopped due to a stalled vehicle, if time exists, determine if the vehicle is occupied. Immediate­ly notify police dispatch of your emergency, providing the exact location, name of the railroad and nature of the emer­gency. Dispatch will then notify the appropriate railroad dis­patcher. Each agency should have a list of emergency rail­road dispatchers for their local area.

When an emergency requires stopping a train, signals should be given on the engineer's side of the track. The engineer sits left of center when facing the lead engine. Patrol vehicles should be deployed two miles from the inci­dent in both directions, parked parallel to, but never on the tracks. Activate emergency lights in clear view of the oncoming train and place two lighted flares between the tracks. The common signal for "stop" is a flare, flashlight or lantern held approximately waist-high, swung from side-to-­side in an exaggerated manner. Flares are the best warning device as they are easily seen in any kind of weather. Be cautious of dangerous flare slag as it can produce severe skin burns. Do not leave your post until an "all-clear" signal has been given by dispatch or the incident commander.

Tags: First Responders


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