Part two in a series
Steam hisses and pops from a railroad car’s brake line. It sounds like a metal giant wheezing.
A conductor wearing an orange hat walks up and down the cars, checking the pressure on each car’s brakes.
“You have to wear an orange hat if it’s your first year working with the company,” said David Rose. “They don’t like wearing the orange hat.”
Rose is general manager at the Union Pacific train terminal in Chico. His line is responsible for carting rock from the local quarries north to Chickasha, Okla., and south to Fort Worth and beyond.
Before any train leaves the Chico terminal, they have to go through a checklist of items that takes an hour or more. When you’re carrying 90 cars weighing a total of 13,000 tons, there’s no such thing as being too cautious.
“Safety is No. 1,” Rose said. “It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of responisbility, too.”
Unfortunately, not all the drivers and pedestrians who cross the tracks each day practice the same caution.
Rose has been with the company for 15 years. He worked his way up from brakeman to switchman to conductor to engineer, and on to management. He’s seen too many people take too many chances at track crossings.
“People try to beat trains all the time,” Rose said. “You see kids in the back seat with eyes big as saucers, and the parents never even notice.
“We can’t stop. We don’t have a steering wheel where we can turn and miss. It’s just a straight shot. All we can do is pull the emergency brake and wait.”
And a loaded train traveling 50 miles per hour can take up to a mile to stop.
“We see near misses all the time,” said engineer Fred Coleman. “I’ve seen kids playing in the middle of train tracks at 2 in the morning. I’ve seen people playing chicken on the train tracks with their vehicles.”
It’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong.
In 2011, 49 people were killed by trains in the entire state of Texas. Wise County has had four fatalities by train in the past year. With 60,000 residents, Wise County has only .002 percent of the state’s population – but now accounts for more than 8 percent of Texas’ train-related fatalities in the last year.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 1,956 collisions between trains and vehicles in 2011, and Texas led the nation by far. Texas had 201 such collisions in 2011, almost double the next state, Indiana, which had 116. California was third with 113. Every other state had less than 100.
Texas also had 16 fatalities involving collisions between trains and vehicles at rail crossings in 2011 – the third highest in the nation. California was first with 27, Illinois second at 19. There were 265 total.
There were 427 fatalities involving pedestrians and trains in 2011, and Texas was second with 33. California ranked first with 62.
Every one of those fatalities could have been prevented.
“I do think as drivers we tend to get complacent with our surroundings,” said Raquel Espinoza-Williams, media director with Union Pacific. “It just takes one time not paying proper attention.”
“It really affects you when something like that happens,” Coleman said. “You take a life. It’s not your fault, but …”
He trails off, his mind somewhere else.
“You feel like hell because you took someone’s life,” said conductor Jeff “Smitty” Smith. “But they killed themselves. Until you can realize that, you give yourself hell. It took me a long time to realize that they killed themselves. I didn’t kill them.
“People think I’m crazy for riding a motorcycle. But I think people are crazy for trying to beat trains.”
Smitty still recalls the exact time, 5:55 p.m., and the exact mile post, 592, when his train hit a 25-year-old man trying to beat a locomotive at a crossing in Newark.
“People just don’t have any patience,” said engineer Bart Ballard. “They don’t care about us. People give me the middle finger. I’ve been shot at.”
Despite it all, Ballard still loves the power of controlling the engines.
“I’m an adrenaline junky,” he said. “The best feeling in the world is looking behind you and seeing a mile-and-a-half long string of cars. It’s like a giant boa constrictor crawling over a pile of rocks.”
RAIL SAFETY TIPS
- Always expect a train and look both ways before crossing railroad tracks.
- Wait for trains and do not attempt to beat approaching trains.
- Ensure there is enough room on the other side of the crossing for your vehicle to completely clear the railroad tracks.
- Watch for vehicles, such as school buses and commercial trucks, that must stop at railroad crossings.
- If your vehicle stalls at a crossing, get passengers out and escort them far from the area, even if trains are not coming through. Call the emergency notification number posted on or near the crossing or notify local law enforcement.
Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit organization devoted to rail crossing safety, reports that a person or vehicle is hit by a train every three hours. For more information, go to www.oli.org.