Train wreck points to challenge of safer tracks

Crash comes amid safety gains, but also highlights some key problem areas.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the strange stories of Wednesday's southern California train collision unfolded, Tim Smith followed along with interest and deep sympathy, but not shock. In his three decades as a locomotive engineer, he has seen all manner of people and trucks on tracks in front of him - sometimes not until it was too late.

The predawn crash in suburban Los Angeles might have been peculiar in its particulars and unusual in the scope of its destruction. But it points to an often unseen world familiar to many like Mr. Smith, where misguided motorists play "chicken" with freight trains and beachgoers use tracks as a shortcut to the shore.

While statistics suggest that America's railways are becoming safer - with fatalities declining across the board - those fatalities are overwhelmingly concentrated in just two areas: collisions at road crossings and incidents with careless trespassers. This week's wreck appears to cut across both categories, and it has shed new light on the complexities of keeping train tracks clear.

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"It's a very difficult question, one that we're continually trying to come to grips with," says Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads in Washington.

By many measures, they have been succeeding. The most recent statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) indicate that the number of train-related employee injuries declined by some 27 percent between 2000 and 2003. Derailments are down since 1990, and even fatalities from collisions at crossings have fallen 37 percent since 1990.

But safety officials have had less success in keeping trespassers off the tracks. In 1997, for the first time the number of trespassers killed surpassed the number of fatalities from accidents at railroad crossings. Since then, the discrepancy has only become more pronounced.

It is, in part, a testament to efforts to make railroad crossings safer, as federal money helps communities construct bigger gates, median strips, and highway overpasses.

But until recently, few safety officials considered what could be done about trespassers - people who cross railways without proper caution, or even use them as hiking trails or jogging paths. According to local police, the man accused of causing Wednesday's crash went even further, driving his car off the road and onto a railroad track in what authorities say was a suicide attempt. Thursday, he was charged with 10 counts of murder - an eleventh will be added for a body found Wednesday night - with "special circumstances," making him eligible for the death penalty.

Suicide attempts present a unique problem not easily solved, officials say. But they are increasingly turning their attention toward these other sorts of reckless behavior in an effort to cut trespassing fatalities, which, along with crossing collisions, still represent 96 percent of all train deaths.

"We're looking at trespassing to a much greater degree than we have in the past," says Steven Kulm of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in Washington. "We hope it will help us to understand why some of this is occurring."

That means engineers are collecting data about trespassers they see. In addition, the FRA has put digital cameras on some trains. Some of the images - such as a couple running from a train on a railroad trestle - are ones engineer Smith knows well.

"It's not the exception, it's the rule," says Smith, who is now the California state chair of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Auburn, Calif.

In fact, a union analysis suggests that even now, as accidents decline, the typical engineer will be involved in at least one crossing accident in his or her career. For his part, Smith counts 10 in his 32 years on the job.

He speaks of abandoned cars and of motorists who park on the tracks and wait to see how close the train can get before speeding off. In Glendale, Calif., police have said there is evidence that the suspect might have attempted to abort his suicide attempt by driving away at the last moment, but got stuck. He then abandoned the vehicle, which caused a three-train pile-up.

In a rail system so vast, where it is impossible to put up gates and cameras at every curve and crossing, the only comprehensive solution is education, he and others say.

That's where Operation Lifesaver finds hope. Started in 1972 in Idaho to educate residents about train crossings, the organization helped lower the state's crossing fatalities by more than 40 percent in its first year. Now, it's trying to bring that message to the nation one community at a time.

"It's a community problem," says spokeswoman Marmie Edwards. "We're all going to have to work together."

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