Hey, Amtrak: Good fences make good neighbors

February 01, 2010|By Michael Dresser Getting there

In the wake of last month's death of 14-year-old Anna Marie Stickel on the Amtrak tracks near Middle River, quite a few people can't seem to wait to give the railroad a free pass.

I can. I've seen the condition of the fences along the tracks - where they do exist - in Middle River. It's disgraceful.

If you drive along Orems Road alongside the tracks, not far from the spot where Anna and a friend gained access, you don't have to get out of the car to find obvious gaps in the decrepit old fence. If you're a teenager looking to get from Point A to Point B, it's virtually an engraved invitation to take a shortcut. That's not even taking into account the stretch behind Rock-a-Billy's Bar & Grill where nothing but a sign stands between an intruder and the rails.

You can blame the trespassers all you want, but when someone has a hazard on one's property, there is a moral if not a legal duty to put up an effective barrier between that danger and those immature or foolish or drunk enough to wander in.

If a private citizen builds a swimming pool in his or her backyard, the law expects a good-faith effort to protect it from young people who otherwise might wander in and drown. The pool owner too cheap to build and maintain such a fence had better have good liability insurance.

In the discussions that took place after Anna's death, the point was frequently made that no chain-link fence could keep teenagers away from the tracks. No matter how many times the railroad repaired it, the prevailing wisdom holds, kids would find a way to go over, under or through it.

But could the prevailing wisdom be wrong? Is the technology of chain-link fencing so frozen in the 1970s that no improvements have been made since then?

I decided to put some of these questions to a man who knows chain-link fencing about as well as anybody on the planet - Bill Ullrich, past president of the Chain Link Fence Manufacturing Institute and a former owner of Baltimore's Anchor Fence Co.

According to Ullrich, there's no doubt that a modern, well-designed chain-link fence could keep people from taking shortcuts across the tracks. The 40-year industry veteran said a state-of-the-art chain-link fence would be almost impossible to cut through, burrow under or climb over.

"You can design a fence that's very, very difficult for somebody to get through," he said. "You put the right fence up, and people aren't going to get through."

The problem, Ullrich said, isn't the technology. It's money. A good chain-link fence isn't cheap, he said, though it's far less expensive than other materials.

This is usually where the howls go up from the industry insisting railroads couldn't afford the cost of securing every last mile of the U.S. rail network.

Sorry. That's a red herring. Ninety percent of the problem would be solved if the industry were to address a limited number of "hot spots" where railroad tracks separate residential communities from shopping, schools and other services.

Middle River is a prime example. South of there are mostly industrial areas. To the north is Glenn L. Martin State Airport. If the fencing in those areas is less than optimal, no big deal. The critical section is a two-mile stretch between Rossville and Martin boulevards where local residents have been crossing for generations. If an effective fence were in place for that stretch, the shortcuts would be eliminated.

With a good fence, there would be no reason to discuss prohibitively expensive notions such as noise barrier-type walls. Such a fence would complement the overpass, known as "Anna's Bridge," advocated by her mother Tara Stickel, but could be built much more quickly.

There is no one solution to the hazards in Middle River. All segments of the community need to come to the table with something to offer: from the schools, better education on the hazards of the tracks. From parents, a vow to give their kids the "train talk." From neighbors, a commitment to call 911 when they see intruders on the rails. From police, a plan to quickly respond.

Amtrak should be at the table, too - with a plan to build the best fence possible in residential Middle River. In almost every other state, the railroad likely would have replaced that fence long ago for fear of legal liability. It is only because Maryland law favors defendants in civil cases that the railroad could become as complacent as it has.

Even if the cost in human lives from shoddy fencing doesn't move Amtrak, it should consider the disruption to its schedules and the inconvenience to its passengers any time there's a fatality on the tracks. You can't keep the trains running on time on tracks that are insecure. You can set your watch by that.

Amtrak, by the way, was called for comment. It did not provide a response.

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