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Jump in fatal train accidents during 2013 prompts nat'l safety campaign

A nationwide spike in fatal train accidents involving trespassers and motorists in 2013 has prompted a national safety campaign urging people to think trains when they see tracks.

While Arizona didn’t follow the trend in 2013 – eight deaths among trespassers equaled the 2012 total, and there were no reported deaths involving motorists – it wasn’t that long ago that the state was among the nation’s worst in terms of accidents involving trains and trespassers, said Doug Farler, state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, which is directing the campaign.

“We’re just trying to tell people to do smart things, make good choices,” Farler said, “and being on the railroad tracks and railroad bridges isn’t one of the smart choices, ever, because you never know when the trains are going to come.”

In 2013, Arizona ranked 25th per-capita among states for train accidents involving trespassers.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 476 pedestrians were killed by trains in 2013, an 11 percent increase from 2012, while 250 motorists were killed by trains, a 7.8 percent increase.

In response, Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit group that educates the public about railroad hazards, has launched a campaign called See Tracks? Think Train! It will use public service announcements on television, radio, print and billboards in English and Spanish.

“Railroad tracks are not a legal place to be, and they’re also very dangerous,” said Carol Steckbeck, media consultant for the national organization. “So we’re trying to help people save themselves and save their family members from grief.”

Farler said the main challenge in Arizona – and the local focus for the campaign here – is students at the state’s three public universities, all of which have railroad tracks nearby.

“They are constantly crossing underneath the barriers and taking their bikes, just trying to get to class a minute earlier,” he said.

It takes a longer train up to four or five minutes to pass, but Farler said waiting is better than trying to beat it across the tracks.

“There’s nothing that a train can do but put on the brakes and hope that whoever is illegally on the track can get out of the way, because it takes trains a mile or more to stop,” he said.

Brian Lehman, railroad safety supervisor for Arizona Corporation Commission, said the improving economy may have something to do with the increased deaths nationally in 2013.

“The railroad industry and what they haul is driven by the economy, so if the economy is somewhat in flux or is starting to go down, the rail industry doesn’t run as many trains,” he said. “Once the economy perks, they run more trains.”

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Jordon Young/Cronkite News Service

A train crosses a road along Grand Avenue in Phoenix.

Safety tips

  • Never race a train to a crossing.
  • Trains approaching crossings are closer and moving faster than you may think.
  • Trains can’t stop quickly.
  • Trains can be 3 feet wider than the track on both sides.
  • Never drive around lowered gates.
  • Don’t get trapped on the tracks.
  • Always watch out for a second train.