'Officer on Train' program targets daredevil drivers Motorists observed crossing tracks despite oncoming locomotive

November 14, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Police officers took an engineer's-eye view yesterday on a train trip from Westminster to Finksburg, looking for trespassers on the tracks and drivers trying to beat the train at crossings.

The event marked the launch of Maryland Operation Lifesaver's "Officer on the Train" program, designed to dramatize the danger of daredevil drivers at rail crossings.

Maryland and Westminster police on the train alerted officers on patrol whenever they saw a violation.

Engineer David Hart, who is assistant general manager of Maryland Midland Railway Co., drove the train yesterday as five drivers were spotted crossing after the train tripped red flashing warning lights.

Four of the offenders, however, were lost in traffic as the officer was on the wrong side of the train and decided not to break the law to nab them.

Drivers who play beat-the-train seem to follow a herd instinct, Hart said as he watched three cars scoot across the tracks in front of him.

The first car hesitated and went through, then two followed quickly as Hart sounded the whistle in the standard railroad-crossing warning: two long, one short, one long.

The cars wouldn't have any more chance than a deer against the train, where the engineer rarely even feels the impact, he said. "They just bounce off."

"When you think it takes me maybe 10 seconds to one minute to clear" an intersection, he said, "that's not really that long to wait -- when you figure what you're gambling with."

Such reckless behavior causes thousands of accidents nationally every year -- about one every 90 minutes, said Barbara Belk, Maryland coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit safety education organization whose goal is to reduce such crashes through its Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Program.

Maryland has 1,955 railroad crossings, Belk said. The nine-mile track from Westminster to Finksburg has crossings at 14 roads, two farms, one private drive and two golf-cart paths -- along with several carved by all-terrain vehicles.

During the trip down and back, five vehicles went through the warning signals, but only one truck at Lawndale Road was ticketed. A conviction is punishable by up to a $70 fine and one point on the driver's license.

The three cars that zipped through a stop sign at George Street in Westminster were lost in traffic, like another at Hahn Road that went through red flashing lights, which are tripped by sensors in the tracks.

"You get a good vantage point up here," Hart said. "You get a group and one thinks he can make it, and it's, 'He made it, so I can make it.' You see them look up and they see the train coming -- and they go on through.

"Next time, we may not be going so slow," he said. "It takes anywhere from a couple hundred feet to over half a mile to stop."

Maryland Midland Railway runs freight cars, serving clients from Western Maryland to Glyndon. The trains' speeds can vary from 5 mph in towns to 80 mph for a 5,500-ton coal train headed down a steep mountain grade, Hart said.

"There's nothing I can do. It won't stop at that speed," he said.

Hart noted problems all down the line -- not only from cars, but from all-terrain vehicles, golf carts and people fishing, hunting, swimming or walking along the tracks -- where they are trespassing if they are within the 33-foot right of way on either side.

A family of six out for a stroll gave Hart his worst scare, he said, in the summer of 1994 -- three weeks after he started with the railroad.

"I was coming into New Windsor, around a curve -- and there were three kids standing there at the side. Another child had her foot stuck in the track, and I knew I couldn't stop.

"At the last possible second, the kid popped up. I missed her by 10 feet," he said. "I stopped 600 feet down the track -- and I saw the kid's shoe floating past me down the creek."

The child's father was furious at Hart, the engineer said, shaking his head at the memory.

Nationwide, "these accidents happen every day," said Michael P. O'Neill, a federal investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington. "We see more grade-crossing and trespassing accidents than anything else we get -- every day."

More people die in highway-rail crashes in a typical year than in commercial airline crashes, said O'Neill. In 1996, 959 people died at rail crossings and rights of way.

The safe-crossing idea grew from a program developed in Idaho in 1972 by Union Pacific Railroad and rail employee unions, said William M. Browder, director of Operations for the Association of American Railroads in Washington. In Maryland, the numbers listed for "collisions with railroad equipment" declined from 17 in 1992 to nine in 1997, when three injuries and no fatalities were reported, according to state figures.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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