Virginia Train Ride Offers Training About Railroad Safety

By CAMERON AUSTIN, The Roanoke Times | June 27, 2014

The video showed an almost unbelievable sight: a mother very casually walking her young child in a stroller over a railroad track, blatantly ignoring the safety cross arms, blinking lights and oncoming train.

They made it across the tracks with just seconds to spare before the train whizzed by at 50 miles an hour.

The passengers aboard the Appalachian Whistle-Stop Safety Train watching the footage collectively gasped.

“Things like this happen all the time,” said Derrick Mason, a grade crossing safety manager for Norfolk Southern, as he showed the video that was shot recently by a camera on another safety train run. “It’s not acceptable, and it’s not OK.”

The June 13 event was part of a four-day tour sponsored by Operation Lifesaver and Norfolk Southern, designed to show passengers firsthand the dangers of trespassing along railroad tracks and ignoring crossing signs.

The Roanoke-Lynchburg, Va., leg of the trip included about 70 members of local law enforcement, community leaders and Norfolk Southern employees.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 19 trespasser casualties in Virginia in 2013, with 11 of those resulting in fatalities, including one in Roanoke. There were 32 grade crossing collisions in the state, with one of those being fatal.

“People are distracted by their own impatience and everyone is always in a hurry,” said Melvin Jones, executive director of the mid-Atlantic region for Operation Lifesaver. “We need to educate people about the possibility for injuries, and how quickly you can be injured if you’re not careful.”

Operation Lifesaver is a national nonprofit organization that works to raise awareness about train safety by visiting schools and government agencies and hosting events. Since the group’s conception in 1972, collisions at highway-rail grade crossings have dropped from more than 12,000 to fewer than 2,100 last year, according to the organization.

While the Whistle-Stop Safety Train headed east toward Lynchburg, a collision occurred in Elliston, west of Roanoke, when a dump truck crossed the tracks and was hit by a Norfolk Southern train. The driver of the truck was taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

Despite the drop in collisions over the years, it’s still all too common for drivers to ignore crossing warnings.

“They know it means stop, but they’re willing to violate the law and face harsh consequences,” said Caylea Wimberly, the grade crossing safety director for Norfolk Southern.

The state Department of Transportation is responsible for deciding what type of safety precautions are put in place at each grade crossing. While every state does it differently, most use a combination of four criteria: the number of trains going through the area, the average speed of the trains, the level of vehicular traffic and the number of previous incidents at that location.

According to Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay, about 50 grade crossings dot the tracks between Roanoke and Lynchburg alone.

“Collisions aren’t always confined to a rural road. They can happen anywhere,” Jones said. “All it takes is for a person to make a bad decision and violate the crossing signs.”

Operation Lifesaver is reaching out to groups such as professional truck drivers, school bus drivers and newly licensed drivers.

The organization is increasing its online presence by making volunteer applications available online and developing interactive content for school bus drivers. Coming this winter, a driving simulator will be available to raise awareness and test drivers about train dangers.

With easier access to information, the group hopes to double the number of volunteers, which include 47 people in Virginia.

Loni Organ, a school resource officer from central Virginia, was on board for her first safety ride. Organ is working to get certified with Operation Lifesaver.

“We all cross train tracks multiple times in our life, and I’m passionate about creating a safer environment for everyone involved,” Organ said.

Organ, who works with children of all ages, says that it’s never too early, or late, to start educating children and adults about train safety.

“If I have a segue, I’m going to bring it up. It’s just so important,” Organ said.

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