Pedestrians warned to 'stop, look, listen' at tracks

August 13, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

The death of a 39-year-old woman who was struck by a train at a Laurel commuter rail station Tuesday has raised concerns over the safety of pedestrian walkways across railroad tracks in Maryland and elsewhere around the country.

Workers posted signs at the Laurel Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) station Thursday afternoon urging pedestrians to be cautious. The signs, identical to ones used at light rail stations, read: "Look Both Ways Before Crossing," and "Danger! Cross Tracks Only at Crosswalks."

The action was prompted by the death of Marsha E. Saponari, a Laurel resident, who stepped into the path of a northbound CSX freight train at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Headed to work in Washington, she was crossing the tracks to reach the station's platform for southbound MARC trains.

Earlier this week, federal investigators reviewed the locomotive event recorder -- the train's equivalent of the "black box" flight recorder in planes -- and found the train's engineer had sounded warnings moments before the accident.

A horn blared as the train approached the Laurel station and again "two or three seconds" before the engineer applied the emergency brakes, said a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which is investigating the accident.

The 30-car train was traveling at 51 mph. After the brakes were applied, it traveled "50 to 100 feet" before hitting Ms. Saponari, FRA spokesman John F. Fitzpatrick said.

Preliminary findings of an FRA inspector found no fault with the actions of CSX personnel, but noted that there were no warning signs posted at the MARC station's two pedestrian walkways. The 6-foot-wide wooden platforms allow commuters to cross the dual tracks without having to step directly on the rail bed.

Federal regulations do not require warning signs on pedestrian walkways, but they are standard for highway crossings. At minimum, public roads that cross railroad tracks must be posted with an X-shaped "Railroad Crossing" sign.

David V. Nogar, MARC's director, said the Laurel walkways had no warning signs because they were not deemed necessary. Ms. Saponari is only the second MARC commuter to die in a train accident since the state began contracting commuter rail service in 1975, state officials said.

The Laurel station -- as is the case with most MARC stations along CSX tracks -- is in much the same condition as it was when the state took responsibility for commuter service on the former Baltimore & Ohio railroad.

"It's never really been a problem," Mr. Nogar said. "Look at how long the commuter trains have operated. The passenger injury and fatality rates are extremely low at MARC."

MARC averages more than 20,000 passengers daily.

Laurel is on MARC's Camden Line, which runs from Baltimore to Washington. CSX also operates MARC's Brunswick Line running from Washington to West Virginia.

Most stations on the CSX-operated lines in Maryland do not have warning signs posted at walkways. Mr. Nogar said his staff is now evaluating conditions at those stations to decide whether to install signs.

Meanwhile, CSX will no longer add stations to a commuter rail system unless they are equipped with an underpass or bridge so that pedestrians do not need to walk on tracks, said Kathy Burns, a CSX spokeswoman.

"We'd like to see an evaluation to see if there's a way to prevent this kind of accident from happening again," Ms. Burns said. "A sign may not help if people ignore it."

MARC's Penn Line, which runs from Perryville to Baltimore and Washington, is operated by Amtrak. Amtrak stations in the Northeast corridor do not use at-grade walkways. Amtrak stations elsewhere around the country often do have walkways, but their use of warning signs varies, said Amtrak spokesman R. Clifford Black IV.

Railroads have 2,137 at-grade pedestrian crossings nationwide, according to FRA records.

Tuesday's accident prompted FRA Administrator Jolene M. Molitoris and Federal Transit Administrator Gordon J. Linton to draft a letter to railroads raising the pedestrian safety issue.

The FRA also intends to review its policy regarding pedestrian warning signs in the near future, Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

"Pedestrians and motorists should have signs and signals to warn them of impending danger," said Dawn D. Soper, spokeswoman for Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that promotes highway-rail crossing safety. "People are so unfamiliar with train operations that they need to be educated."

Last year, 626 people were killed in highway-rail crossing collisions and 523 others died while trespassing on railroad property. The federal government does not keep statistics on deaths specifically involving railroad walkways.

Industry officials said Ms. Saponari's death should also serve to remind the public of the hazards of crossing tracks.

"We have to remind people of the oldest safety slogan -- stop, look and listen," said Chris Knapton, spokesman for Chicago's Metra, a commuter rail system that has recorded 12 pedestrian fatalities over a three-week period this summer.

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