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February 22, 2010

Deaths on the Tracks

A week ago, early on a Tuesday morning, a 63 year old woman walked from her home in Norwalk, approached the Metro-North grade crossing at Commerce Street, lay down on the tracks and was killed by the oncoming train. Service was disrupted for hours.

Months before that a well dressed businessman slipped from a boarding bridge-plate platform and was killed by the approaching train. In his pocket was a pink-slip. Was he a victim or a suicide?

For whatever reason there has been a growing number of deaths along Metro-North tracks and precious little that can be done to stop them.

In Stamford station’s waiting room sits a large display for “Operation Lifesaver”, a national program to educate us of the dangers of walking or driving over railroad tracks. The message isn’t getting through.

On average, one American dies every two hours after being hit by a train. Two thirds of such victims are aged 18 – 34. And half of all car-train collisions occur at crossings with flashing lights or gates.

Fortunately, Connecticut has very few places where cars and trains cross paths. On the mainline, there are none. But on the New Canaan, Waterbury and Danbury branches there are many such crossings. Local neighbors know it because they hear engineers lean on their horns warning motorists, as if the flashing lights and gates were not enough.

In New Canaan, folks complained about the train horns and tried to get them silenced… a move about as stupid as those living near a firehouse complaining about the sirens.

But most recent deaths in Connecticut have not involved impatient motorists driving around gates, but pedestrians on the tracks.

Part of the problem is with recent immigrants in whose homelands walking alongside railroads is an accepted practice. Lacking good roads, track-walking is often the fastest way from point A to point B. There the trains are slow and noisy, affording plenty of time to get out of the way. But on Metro-North, our electric trains operate at 75 – 90 mph and are almost silent. These people never knew what hit them.

In another recent case, two people at a station realized they were on the wrong platform and jumped down to the tracks to get across, rather than use the pedestrian bridge. One of them made it but was unable to lift his girlfriend to safety before she was hit.

Once, waiting for a train in Darien, I saw a teen sit on the platform, his legs dangling over the edge. He figured he had 10 minutes before his train would arrive, little realizing that in just seconds an Amtrak express would come barreling thru at high speed. As the startled engineerleaned on his horn, the kid pulled his legs out of the way with seconds to spare.

My cynical side says this is Darwin in action: that these idiots need to be taken out of the gene pool. But then I think of the other victims in these incidents… not just the person who loses a limb or their life, but the railroad engineer who must watch it happen.

If you want to commit suicide, please do so by yourself and don’t inflict your pain on others. Suicide by rail is messy and not always quick.

Railroad engineers who see a person on the track can do almost nothing to avoid hitting them. A multi-ton train traveling at high speed has such momentum that it requires a mile to come to a full stop. So imagine how the engineer must feel just before the impact of their train on an errant car or pedestrian. Imagine the trauma they experience… the mental anguish for months or years, reliving that crash in their dreams.

We have warning stripes on platforms, flashing lights and gates at crossings for a reason. And yes, New Canaan, engineers sound their horns at such grade-crossings for reasons beyond just annoying you.

As they say in “Operation Lifesaver”, any time is train time. So please… stay off the tracks.

3 comments:

R. Senserrich said...

Jim, one quick note: there is only one developed nation that has the trains blowing their horns and making noise in every single grade crossing. Yup, it is the US.

For some reason it seems that Germans, French and Japanese people do not need all that noise - and have very similar (or lower) fatality rates.

It is an obsolete practice - you should speak against it!

Killer Reail said...

I am so sick of the rails calling people trespassers to justify the killing.Other than a death row job, the rails are the next deadliest killer out there. Some engineer/conductors brag about the number of people they have killed as an honor, and describe disgusting death scenes as they get off on it. Just read their forums and you will see what these guys really are...it is disgusting for a human being to talk this way..let alone earn a living from it. Just because you call them trespassers does not excuse you from killing innocent victims and children loved by family and friends. I have traced people making comments and all the nasty ones are rail guys. Nice career choice for idiots. As for addressing victims families you guys rate number 1 in the A-hole department. I'll bey this gets a few responses, but none will be worth reading as the intelligent level with these is none existent. Sick and tired of your crap!!! Take your killing jobs and stick it!! Long live the respect for Victims of the rails.

Unknown said...

I agree with Mr. Senserrich. I fail to see how train horns help stop grade crossing accidents when there are flashing lights and gates in action. The big secret is that the majority of "accidents" are suicides and the train horn blaring away at all hours wouldn't have made a difference. It does however lower people's property values, wake children from their naps, and prevent some adults from ever getting a good night's sleep. But hey, they should have moved somewhere else, right?