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Life on the line; Tears on the tracks: Railroad personnel can only do so much about accidents

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, September 15, 2012

INTERLOCK GRID – The railroad interlock at Tower 55 in downtown Fort Worth is one of the busiest and most congested areas of train traffic in the country. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Final part of the series

When a train struck and killed 14-year-old Marcus Silletti near a crossing on July 7 in Alvord, people didn’t understand how he never heard the train coming.

Silletti was walking south, cutting through town on the tracks, listening to music on his headphones, when the train struck him from behind. Witnesses said he never even flinched.

“You can’t always hear the train, especially when you have headphones in,” said Ed Hobbs, a locomotive engineer with Amtrak. “Many people don’t realize that trains are actually quieter when they are traveling at a high rate of speed.

“You won’t believe how many people are killed every year in this country while walking or jogging on the tracks and listening to music.”

In 2011, 428 pedestrians were killed while trespassing on train tracks. Thirty-three of those were in Texas. There were another 1,900 vehicle collisions with trains.

Silletti is one of four people killed on train tracks in Wise County in the past year. It’s the highest per capita of train deaths in the state – in a state that already has the highest number of train-related accidents in the nation.

“Texas is No. 1 when it comes to vehicle collisions with trains,” Hobbs said. “We have more highway miles and more crossings than any other state.”

FIRST INSPECTION – The conductor’s job is to take care of every car on the train. In case of an accident, the conductor is the first person to examine the carnage. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Hobbs has been in the locomotive industry for more than 20 years. Several years ago he started giving rail safety lectures to high school students across North Texas through the Operation Lifesaver program.

Hobbs decided to get involved after going through several traumatizing incidents in his own career. During his years behind the controls, he’s seen four pedestrians and 12 vehicles hit at grade crossings. He witnessed his first fatality in 1993 when a young man was climbing onto a parked freight train on a line next to his.

“He jumped off the parked train and into our tracks,” Hobbs said. “It happened in less than two seconds. He never even looked up. I still can’t get that out of my mind. I’ll always have that image in my head.”

He’s reviewed hundreds of recordings of pedestrians and vehicles hit on the tracks. Every train now comes equipped with cameras so the company can go back and look at the incident and see what went wrong, see if something can be done to make an area safer. But almost 100 percent of the time, it’s the fault of the driver or pedestrian.

“This is an emotional issue for us,” Hobbs said. “I know several guys who have had to quit work with medical disability because they can’t deal with the psychological anguish it causes. You can’t imagine what it’s like to run over somebody in the tracks. You don’t believe it when it happens.”

“It’s really bad for our crews. It’s traumatizing,” said David Rose, manager of operations for Union Pacific’s Chico terminal. “I don’t think the general public really understands how to fix our crews. We have a program for our guys, peer support, where we give our guys time off to deal with it.

“We can’t stop. And we don’t have steering wheels on our trains where we can swerve and miss someone. We’re just a straight shot.”

The job of investigating what happened then falls on the conductor – the first one on the scene.

“The conductor has to go back there and see people cut up and killed,” Hobbs said. “It does a lot of damage. Then they have to ride on that same route every day. They have to relive the event again and again.

“And it’s tough on the parents and family. They have to go and identify their child after they’ve been torn up by a train.”

NO STEERING WHEEL – When an engineer sees a vehicle or person on the tracks, all they can do is blow the whistle and pull the emergency brake. It can take a fully loaded freight train up to two miles to stop. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

NEVER ON SCHEDULE

Raindrops fall silent as tears from the sky’s broad gray face onto steel rail rusted to the color of dried blood.

A narrow, three-story, brown brick tower rises over a chain link fence. Tower 55 lurks over the busiest railroad interlock in the nation. Located in downtown Fort Worth, the Union Pacific and BNSF trains that roar through Wise County every day must come to a halt at the tower.

“It’s where trains come east, west, north and south,” said Gaye Lynn with Amtrak. “As many as 150 trains move through this interlock everyday.”

The trains hardly ever arrive when scheduled. They come and go and sit at odd hours and times.

“You have to always expect a train at any time, day or night, in any direction,” Hobbs said. “They don’t run on schedule. Even passenger trains seldom run at exact times.”

He said people grow complacent because they might seldom see a train on the tracks by their home where they walk or drive regularly. But you can never be too cautious, he added.

And due to the size of a train, it’s also difficult to determine their speed of approach.

“A train appears at an odd angle when you look down the tracks,” he said. “It’s hard to tell how far away it is or how fast it is traveling. When I’m going 79 miles per hour, I’ll cover a mile in only 45 seconds.”

DISTORTED VIEW – It’s difficult to judge the speed and proximity of an approaching train down the tracks. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Tragedy happens in an instant. It’s never expected. It’s never on schedule. And for the engineer, conductor or anyone else at the scene, that image never leaves their minds.

“I’ve always just had to get back to work,” Hobbs said. “My way of dealing with it is just to stay busy.

“I’ve had people tell me that I don’t have a high-pressured job. I just run a train up and down the tracks. But if I make a mistake, or somebody else makes a mistake, there is no limit to what can happen. I can’t pick up an eraser and get rid of the mistake.”

And every time he rides down the rail, the images of past tragedies are imprinted in the route like permanent tears on the tracks. Wise County has already had four tragedies in one year. Hobbs hopes programs like his can keep any more from happening.

“It tears you up inside,” he said. “You just don’t believe something like this can happen.”

On July 7, as family and friends shared their anguish in the hot sun in Alvord while investigators pored over the area where Silletti died, no one there seemed to believe what was happening.

Less than a month later, it happened again, to 14-year-old Cheyanne Dollins, a classmate of Silletti’s.

The guys on the trains believe it, but there’s only so much they can do to stop it.

That job falls to the rest of us.

Any school, church or other organization that would like to schedule a program by Operation Lifesaver at no charge can learn more at www.oli.org.

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