Trains are emblematic of myriad lovely things, including romance, nostalgia, tradition and discovery. Kids and adults alike are thrilled by Harry Potter’s magical train to Hogwart’s school and during the holiday season, it’s wonderful to imagine a train filled with brightly wrapped presents. Yet it’s easy to get carried away—literally—by these heady associations, and it’s vitally important to remember train safety issues, especially awareness around railroad tracks.
“The average freight train traveling at 50 miles per hour takes a mile and a quarter to stop,” says Bobbie Ottoson of Minnesota Operation Lifesaver, “and the size of the train makes it look like its moving more slowly than it is. That’s when people misjudge and try to make it across.” Even if the engineer spots a person, car or another obstruction on the tracks, it might be too late for the train to even slow down. Another thing people may not realize, Ottoson says, is that “when you’re at a crossing, things vibrate and shift—you’ll never know what will come flying at you. Kids put cans, rocks and coins on the tracks to see them get flattened and are often injured by flying debris.” It is not enough just to stay off the tracks; everyone must also stay away from the tracks.
“Minnesota Operation Lifesaver is committed to public awareness, and dedicated to crossing and railroad safety,” says Ottoson. “We provide education and outreach that is devoted to ending tragic collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad rights of way.”
Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad is doing everything it can to raise train safety awareness. In 2011, BNSF sponsored more than 13,300 Operation Lifesaver (OL) presentations across the country on railroad crossing and track safety.
Started in 1972, OL is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting rail safety. According to OL’s website, a person or a vehicle is hit by a train almost every three hours, which is quite a sobering statistic. OL states that its mission is to “end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on rail property through a nationwide network of volunteers who work to educate people about rail safety.” Since OL’s inception, the number of U.S. highway-rail grade crossings has dropped the number of incidents annually by 80 percent.
OL’s international office coordinates state programs, educational videos, brochures and other instructional materials. Safety classes are offered to a range of vehicle drivers, from the new drivers to adult drivers and to professionals such as truck and bus drivers. From unpredictable freight train schedules, recognition of signs and signals, obstructed views and the importance of heeding physical and visual cues such as bells, horns, barricades, or flashing lights, OL covers the gamut of rail safety considerations.
OL also offers various children’s programs. During the holiday season, kids can enjoy an instructional program centered around the heartwarming holiday book and movie “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsberg. While OL praises the emotional content of the film, it also stresses that the movie is about a fantasy train, and should be supplemented with practical facts about the very real dangers of train tracks, railroad equipment and rail crossings. Many of the scenes in the movie depict unrealistic situations and unsafe behavior that would be life-threatening around an actual train, so the curriculum encourages children to discuss how to be safe in real life situations at railroad crossings.
Ottoson encourages Plymouth residents to contact MN Operation Lifesaver to schedule a presentation or to volunteer to help educate others on railroad safety. “We do an amazing job of delivering safety messages for kids, adults and teenagers,” she says, “and we encourage people to get involved however they can.”
More information on OL’s Polar Express curriculum can be found at oli.org.