Statesman Staff Writer
Approximately 75 people boarded 1950s era rail passenger cars for a short excursion south of Dexter on Tuesday. The event was part of Operation Livesaver, a non-profit public education program established in 1972 to end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad rights-of-way.
Union Pacific provided the transportation. Two locomotives, a 1982 MoPac and a 1996 Southern Pacific Heritage, pulled the train which included two passenger cars and a business car. The two passenger cars were Columbine and the Texas Eagle, both manufactured in the 1950s. The business car provides accommodations for the supervisor of the educational program.
Michael McGill, Operation Lifesaver presenter, coordinated the local event. The train left the Union Pacific offices northeast of Dexter and traveled nearly to Bernie before returning. Passengers got a first-hand experience on train travel. The trip took nearly three hours as five higher priority freight trains rolled passed the passenger train on stretches where there were two sets of tracks.
McGill presented safety tips to drivers who cross railroad tracks or use the right-of-way.
* Freight trains don't travel at fixed times, and schedules for passenger trains change. Always expect a train at each highway-rail intersection.
* All train tracks are private property. Never walk on tracks; it's illegal trespass and highly dangerous. By the time a locomotive engineer sees a trespasser or vehicle on the tracks it's too late. It takes the average freight train traveling at 55 mph more than a mile - the length of 18 football fields - to stop. Trains cannot stop quickly enough to avoid a collision.
* The average locomotive weighs about 400,000 pounds or 200 tons; it can weigh up to 6,000 tons. This makes the weight ratio of a car to a train proportional to that of a soda can to a car. It's not hard to imagine what happens when a soda can is hit by a car.
* Trains have the right of way 100% of the time over emergency vehicles, cars, the police and pedestrians.
* A train can extend three feet or more beyond the steel rail, putting the safety zone for pedestrians well beyond the three-foot mark. If there are rails on the railroad ties, always assume the track is in use, even if there are weeds or the track looks unused.
* Trains can move in either direction at any time. Sometimes their cars are pushed by locomotives instead of being pulled, which is especially true in commuter and light rail passenger service.
* Today's trains are quieter than ever, producing no telltale "clackety-clack." Any approaching train is always closer, moving faster, than you think.
* Remember to cross train tracks only at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings, and obey all warning signs and signals posted there.
* Stay alert around railroad tracks. No texting, headphones or other distractions that would prevent you from hearing an approaching train; never mix rails and recreation.
In 2011, there were 1, 693 train/vehicle crashes, of which 380 involved commercial vehicles. The number of fatalities was 254 in crossing accidents, while another 428 died as a result of trespassing.
Nationally, there were 48 rail crossing incidents with 13 fatalities and 14 injuries in 2011. There were only eight fatalities in 2010. Two of the collisions took place in Stoddard County resulting in an injury. There has already been one fatality in 2012 from a train/vehicle crash.
McGill told those taking the excursion that many of the accidents take place at crossings with both flashing lights and gates. Out of 22 incidents at rail crossings, 21 were at crossings with both lights and gates. Also, eight of the 13 fatalities were at these type of crossings. It is also surprising that 60 percent of the collisions occur during daylight hours. One in five collisions are from vehicles hitting the train.
McGill said that many drivers become accustomed to a train going a certain direction, and look in that direction only before crossing. He says while most trains come through downtown Dexter moving west to east, there are trains that run the opposite direction. He warns that drivers be sure to look in both directions.
There were plenty of youngsters on the train excursion Tuesday. Not only was it their first train excursion, but many of their parents had never been on a train either. Coloring books and safety brochures aimed at the children were distributed. Many of the passengers read the histories of the particular passenger car in which they were riding. The Columbine was named after the flower that is the official State Flower of Colorado. McGill noted that famous actors and other dignitaries "rode in these exact passenger cars." Each car featured both men's and women's restrooms.
Someone asked McGill about the dining car. He laughed that it was still in Colorado and not part of the traveling educational program.
Operation Lifesaver has programs in all 50 states, with trained volunteers who provide free safety talks to community groups, school bus drivers, truck drivers and student drivers to raise awareness around railroad tracks and trains. For more information, or to request a free safety presentation, visit www.oli.org.