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Friday, October 20 2017 @ 11:22 PM UTC

Pedestrian Deaths on Railroad Tracks: The Failure of Design

Biking Elsewhere[B' Spokes: I'm going to repeat what I have said before about Baltimore Metro area train/pedestrian fatalities "Why would anyone walk on train tracks when there is a perfectly good high speed road with no shoulders or sidewalks to walk on? Oh wait.. never mind. I guess as long as the victims are at fault nobody has to do anything to correct this, right?"
Streets Blog goes into some more detail, and I would like to point out if responsibility is shared it makes it that much harder to hold those who are responsible accountable.]

by Tanya Snyder, Streets blog


The Federal Railroad Administration estimates that 500 people die every year walking on railroad tracks [PDF]. But who bears the responsibility of preventing these deaths? Was it Kristen’s responsibility to avoid trespassing where freight trains roar past? Her town’s responsibility to erect a fence before being spurred on by her death? Should planners have recognized that it’s human nature for people to take a calculated risk to reach the amenities they used? Or was it the railroads’ responsibility to identify where these deaths happen and try to mitigate the risk?

A recent series by reporter Todd Frankel at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch makes clear that the responsibility is shared. But he also points a finger at the railroads, which have been obstructionist as others try to address the issue:

A few years ago, when the [Federal Railroad Administration] tried to get a better sense of who was walking on the tracks — by looking at trespassing cases that didn’t end in a casualty — regulators asked the railroads for help. They wanted the railroads’ internal trespassing reports. The railroads refused.

The agency recently was forced to concede defeat, noting that it “failed to garner the necessary support from the rail industry to conduct the study.”

Then there was the issue of where the casualties occurred.

For years, the agency required railroads to report only the county of a trespassing death or injury. Not the city. Not the closest milepost on the railroad system. Having so few details made it hard to identify hot spots for trespassing, said Ron Ries, director of the agency’s Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Division.

We reported in the spring that FRA guidance on pedestrian safety at railroad tracks focused only on approved crossings, ignoring the risks of so-called “trespassing” that occurs outside of those areas.

Only in the last year did federal law require railroads to provide GPS coordinates of the crashes. Before that, their crash reports only listed the county where the crash happened, making it impossible to identify where these crashes are clustered. Now, with better information, some danger “hotspots” became apparent.


In an interview with Streetsblog, Frankel of the Post-Dispatch said Hyattsville perfectly fits the profile of a likely hotspot for pedestrian deaths on railroad tracks: “It’s a residential neighborhood, high density, the speed limit on [the train tracks] is 70 miles per hour, you have both freight and commuter rail,” Frankel said. “And you have residential on one side, commercial on the other, so people have reasons to be going back and forth.” [Just like in the Baltimore Metro area.

He said that when he visited the site, there were obvious paths of well-worn gravel across the track, but the railroads still claim it’s impossible to know what spots are popular pedestrian crossings. Frankel said that tracks that carry fast trains have to be inspected twice a week by a slow-moving truck. Those trucks clearly see the “deer trails” worn by many feet.

In Villa Park, he said, where Kristen Bowen died, it felt like a train went by every ten minutes. The frequency of train traffic is another risk factor. And he says passenger trains are more dangerous than freight, “because the trains tend to be smaller, lighter, and faster. Quieter.” Many of these cases involved commuter rail and inter-city Amtrak trains.

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