Death on tracks treated as unsolvable problem

Trespassing pedestrians are majority of fatalities

February 25, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Since the days of the first locomotives, people have been finding their way onto railroad tracks.

They walk along them. They sit on them, drink on them, lie on them - and more than 500 times a year they die on them, as a Havre de Grace boy did last weekend. Eleven-year-old Devron Pittman was the third person in the past three weeks to be struck and killed by a train in Maryland or Delaware.

These cases and others illustrate the difficulty of trying to secure the tracks in the face of human impulse - to take a shortcut, to play daredevil, to find a place to get high and in some cases to end life violently.

Devron's family says there should have been a barrier to prevent the fifth-grader from crossing the tracks near his home as a quick route to a U.S. 40 dollar store. While Amtrak officials say they'll look at the site, they and other industry observers say firmly that fences generally aren't the answer to rail-pedestrian safety.

"You've got 175,000 miles of track over about 100,000 miles of roadway, and experience has shown that despite such efforts in many cases, individuals will continue to trespass," said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Amtrak spokesman R. Clifford Black said most of the passenger railroad's 22,000 miles of right-of-way remains unfenced for reasons of cost and practicality. Where the railroad does fence its tracks, he said, people quickly find ways to get through.

`Stay off the tracks'

"We try to repair these cuts and these breaks, but we can't be everywhere at once," Black said. He said Amtrak will look into the Pittman family's request that it examine the site where Devron was killed, but for railroads, the message of his accident is not about fences.

"These tragedies do serve notice that people should stay off the tracks," Black said.

Railroad officials have been telling Americans for decades that the tracks are private property, not public thoroughfares. Americans haven't gotten the message.

Unauthorized visitors to railroad tracks and rail yards now account for more than half of the nation's railroad fatalities each year. Most years, the toll is greater than the number of fatalities in commercial aviation, but when rail trespassers die, it is often alone and in obscurity.

For much of the past century, the most common way to die in a railroad accident was at a highway crossing - usually in a collision between a train and a vehicle. But over the years, highway departments reduced the number of at-grade crossings and railroad companies improved signals at the crossings that remained.

Deaths in such accidents declined steadily, while "trespasser fatalities" - government's term for the death of someone, usually a pedestrian, who is not authorized to be on the tracks - held steady or increased.

Flatau said that in 1997, for the first time since the government began keeping statistics, more people were killed in accidents while trespassing on tracks or other railroad property than at highway crossings.

The gap has widened since then. In 2003, the last full year for which statistics are available, 503 trespassers died. The number killed at highway crossings fell to a new low of 331.

Over the past three years in Maryland, where there are relatively few at-grade crossings, the state has recorded about eight railroad fatalities annually - all involving trespassing on Amtrak or freight railroad tracks. The last fatal vehicle-train collision in the state was in 2001.

Of the three recent victims, Devron was the least typical: He was a child and his death received extensive publicity.

A more typical case is that of the 39-year-old man who was struck and killed by an Amtrak train Feb. 5 in Kensington. According to Officer Derek Baliles, a Montgomery County police spokesman, the man was seen by the engineer "swaying back and forth standing on the track with his back to the train."

It was too late for the train to stop. The Sun and The Washington Post ran brief articles on inside pages saying an unidentified man had died on the tracks. When he was later identified from fingerprints as Herminio Lechuga Rosas of no fixed address, there was no coverage.

One case that awaits a decision is that of William Hicks, 32, who died Feb. 14 on the Amtrak tracks in Wilmington. According to Lt. Joseph Aviola of the Delaware State Police, the man had recently lost a job and was suffering from depression.

If Hicks' death is formally ruled a suicide, his case will not find its way into the railroad administration's list of accidental deaths. Flatau said he doesn't know of any agency that tracks suicide by train.

Beyond solution

To some extent, the federal government has treated the trespasser fatalities as a problem beyond solution.

The National Transportation Safety Board, for instance, hasn't done a study of the issue since at least the 1970s. Flatau, the railroad administration spokesman, said his agency has found it difficult to get a handle on the problem.

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