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Rails-With-Trails: A Progress Report

From a rail safety perspective, how feasible are Rails-With-trails?

By Carolyn E. Cook, Director of Crossing Safety, Railroad Commission of Texas and member of the Operation Lifesaver Program Development Council

Operation Lifesaver is the nation's only safety program to focus completely on highway-rail safety and railroad trespass prevention. As an employee of the Rail Division of the Texas Railroad Commission, I also have the perspective of understanding railroad safety and the efforts made by the railroads, the Federal Railroad Administration and the more than 30 state rail safety programs to improve safety on the nation's railroads.

Today, as we examine some issues related to establishing trails near active rail lines I would like to share information about the Operation Lifesaver program, and to provide an overview of the problem of railroad trespassing. I also want to include some information about rail safety and then I will only have time to mention a few of the many critical safety issues related to Rails-with-Trails. Finally, I'd like to share with you some thoughts on the potential for planning Rails-with-Trails projects to reduce the incidence of railroad trespassing.

"Numerous safety issues must be addressed in the planning and engineering of any trail in the vicinity of an active railroad line."

Operation Lifesaver is a federation of 49 state programs under the leadership of Operation Lifesaver Inc. which has established a National Support Center in Alexandria, VA. For 27 years, the program has been educating people about the dangers at highway-rail intersections and on railroad rights-of-way.

During that time period, the program has matured and today we have more than 2,000 certified presenters and recently revised print materials and educational videos designed for a variety of audiences. We talk to children, youth and adult audiences including school bus drivers, truckers, Emergency Medical Service personnel and law enforcement officers. Operation Lifesaver even has a web-site you can find at

Since 1980, the railroad industry has experienced a renaissance due to deregulation. Today, the U.S. has 147,055 miles of railroad track in operation. Rail traffic is booming. In 1997, the U.S. rail industry handled 39 percent of the nation's intercity freight traffic and rail was the predominant mode of transportation for coal, grain and new motor vehicles.

While the number of casualties at railroad crossings has decreased significantly with the help of the public education efforts of Operation Lifesaver, the number of railroad trespassing casualties has steadily increased until in 1997 there were more deaths due to trespassing than due to vehicle-train collisions.

In this decade, however, with the increase in train traffic, the trespass casualty rate per one million train miles operated has actually declined from 1.81 in 1990 to 1.54 in 1998.

Still, between 1990 and 1998 an average of 1,025 people each year have been killed or seriously injured in railroad trespassing incidents. It certainly appears that far too many children, youth and adults do not know that railroad tracks and railroad bridges are private railroad property nor do they adequately perceive the extreme dangers of walking along tracks, hopping rail cars, crawling over and through stopped trains, and cutting through railroad yards. These activities are not only highly dangerous, they constitute illegal trespassing. According to a study done by the Federal Railroad Administration (April 1998), railroad trespassing is specifically prohibited by state law in about 30 states with the remaining states and the District of Columbia lacking laws applying specifically to railroad property. All but nine states do have laws specifically prohibiting vandalism of railroad property. However, many of the state laws in effect incorporate weak penalties such as fines of $10-$100 for a first offense trespassing charge. Vandalism offenses are often treated as mere traffic infractions though the potential for serious injury and property damage is surely great with the tampering of any railroad property.

Though the Operation Lifesaver program has always addressed the dangers of railroad trespassing activities, about three years ago, Operation Lifesaver began to develop additional programming to help deter the growing incidence of railroad trespassing. Three public service announcements created in cooperation with the Association of American railroads have been designed to change railroad trespassing behavior and they are being used in media campaigns in many states.

Though we have no information on the actual extent of railroad trespassing, railroads indicate that in many areas, trespassing causes a constant nuisance and stress to train crews who can't possibly know if the trespassers see or hear the train and will move out of the way in time to avoid being hit.

Who are these trespassers? Federal Railroad Administration's trespass casualty data does not include gender, age and racial demographics so we don't know for sure, but anecdotal information tells us that it is people from all walks of life, young and old.

Between 1995 and 1998, Texas led the nation in trespassing casualties with an average of 128 casualties per year. California ranked second with 120 casualties. These two states had nearly twice as many casualties as the third ranked state of Illinois which had an average of 67 casualties per year. An interesting fact is that in 1997, railroads in the state of Illinois actually hauled 36 percent more carloads than in Texas and 56 percent more carloads than in the state of California . Recently the FRA has been able to provide statewide data with the county location of trespass casualties. Consider that the counties in both of these states with the highest trespass casualties tend to be near the border. The railroads have been dealing with the serious problem of illegal immigrants trespassing on trains for many years now. Last year, six were killed in one incident in South Texas as they slept on the tracks. At railroad border crossings in Texas, the Union Pacific Railroad has had a canine team working to sniff out thousands of illegal stowaways each month.

Another serious problem for railroads has been with transients, hobos and felons who use trains for transportation as well as to elude the law. Finally another group that could be driving the trespass casualty numbers up are those who deliberately use trains as a way to commit suicide. If ruled a suicide the incident is not included in the FRA trespass casualty data, but it is often difficult to know a person's intention in such cases.

How safe are the railroads in general? In recent years, railroads have certainly become a much safer place for their employees to work. Between 1990 and 1998, train accidents (which include derailments and train-train collisions, explosions and other equipment impacts) declined by 11% in the U.S. and since their peak in 1978 with 11,277 accidents, train accidents, by 1998 (when 2,575 accidents occurred) were down by 77 percent.

Yet railroad operations still abound with potential hazards to both employees and anyone who comes too close to a train. On mainline track, an average train today weighs more than 12 million pounds and traveling at 55 mph will take a mile or more to come to a stop once the engineer begins emergency braking. Derailments are always a danger since they can be caused by problems with track or equipment, improper train handling or other human error as well as vandalism to track or equipment. Another cause of derailments is vehicle-train collisions such as the one which resulted in the recent Amtrak derailment in Bourbonaise, IL. This collision, resulting in the death of 11 Amtrak passengers, was caused by a truck driver's failure to yield the right of way to the train at the crossing.

From a rail safety perspective, how feasible are Rails-With-trails? Certainly, the mainline track of the large Class I railroads are not a safe environment for a Rail-with-Trail. There is simply too much high speed train traffic on these cross-country routes. Most of the time railroads simply wouldn't want a trail near a mainline due the numerous safety concerns. There are a few Rails-With-Trails that have been built near mainline track, however, the majority have been built near lighter density lines involving fewer trains and reduced train speeds.

Numerous safety issues must be addressed in the planning and engineering of any trail in the vicinity of an active railroad line. Among the most important safety considerations to address is that the shared corridors must have physical barriers for the purposes of (1) preventing trespassers from crossing or putting things on the tracks, or vandalizing signals, switches or other railroad property, (2) to shield trail users from flying debris such as ballast rock or loose cargo straps, chains and other material from the train, (3) to shield train crew and other trail users from flying debris thrown by trail users. The more separation between the trail and the rails, the better. A minimum distance of 100 feet, heavy vegetation and serious fencing are three good ways to accomplish this. Using all three of these would provide the greatest safety.

What potential might an adjacent public trail have on reducing trespassing on an active rail line? Between 1995 and 1998, 81 percent of the trespassing casualties have occurred on Class I railroad track. This, however, is not a measure of the incidence of railroad trespassing. Certainly by providing the public a viable alternative route, rail trespassing could be reduced along adjacent tracks. For example, if people are using the tracks to avoid motor vehicle traffic or for recreational pursuits such as jogging or strolling, then a trail would likely be preferable to tracks. A safe trail could be designed to meet many of the needs of people who otherwise would use the tracks as a route to travel. Each case is going to be different as communities and their people are quite culturally diverse.

The first step in any Rails-With-Trails planning process ought to be to talk with the railroad involved. They will know a lot about the type of trespassing that is going on in specific areas along their tracks. Remember, they are the experts on their railroad and many of the railroads would welcome community efforts to help reduce trespassing on their tracks. Safety though, must be carefully engineered and planned for, otherwise no railroad is going to be interested in sharing their corridor with a trail.

June 25, 1999

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