Confessions of a Railroad Engineer – Why Trespassers Trouble Me

It was my last run of the night. At about 1:35 a.m. the FrontRunner dispatcher called me on the radio to warn me of a vehicle reported to be on the track ahead of my train. Even before he finished his sentence, I realized that it was just around the curve in front of me. Dumping my 79 mph train into emergency braking was too little too late. All I could do was to apply those emergency brakes and lay on the horn.

As I rounded the corner and hit the full sized pick-up truck pointed nose down into my track, I was still going 63 mph.

I hate making radio transmissions that start with “EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY…” and end in “Contact made!!!” But I’ve had to make that radio call twice. Luckily, I only managed to destroy two perfectly good late model pick-up trucks while narrowly missing the fleeing occupants. Unfortunately, about every 3 hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train.

Heinrich’s Law – How to stop the carnage.

I’ve taught Heinrich’s Law in processing and manufacturing plants many times. This law also applies to trains and railroads. Based on exhaustive research, this law states that for every 300 unsafe acts, there are 29 minor injuries or close calls, and 1 major injury or death. So the way to stop major injuries and death is to eliminate all those unsafe acts.

That’s why railroads in general, and in this case UTA FrontRunner specifically, goes to great lengths to eliminate all possible unsafe acts. Right at the onset of building our modern railroad, the design process included all features possible to keep everyone away from the railroad right-of-way.

Anytime someone breaches this right-of-way, they are trespassing into danger. In my time here, I’ve observed that Heinrich’s Law is a pretty accurate predictor for railroads too.

Our Safety Department has a 3-pronged approach to prevent trespassing, including technological, enforcement, and education. As you might expect from me, I’ll attempt to explain all of this, laced with stories from my personal experiences.

Technological – “If we build it, they won’t come.”Trespassers1

This place was designed to keep everyone safe. Just look around. The grade crossings are not only decked out with lights and gates, but they also have curbing to keep cars approaching the lowered crossing gate from driving around it. Signs are posted, at access points to our right-of-way along the tracks, warning that entrance is dangerous and would be trespassing.

On the station platforms more signs give warning and instructions. “Look both ways… Use designated crossings…  Stand behind the yellow tactile strip when trains approach…”

Even with what was originally built into the infrastructure, like lots of fencing, signage, and lights, problem areas have cropped up.

Even those fancy grade crossing protections, I just mentioned, can be circumvented if you try hard enough. Not long ago, I was approaching one of these crossings shared with Union Pacific. This was an extra wide crossing with two UTA tracks and even more Union Pacific tracks. As I approached at nearly full speed, a car sped into the exit side of the crossing, and then crossed the tracks in front of me while shifting back to his side, so he could exit the other side of the crossing, thus avoiding all safety measures. The dude was driving almost as fast I was. I didn’t even have time to dump it into emergency before it was all over. After the shock of witnessing this close call faded, the thought of what I had read somewhere came to mind. “Five out of six participants find no problem playing Russian Roulette.”

As train engineers, we report all trespassers observed on our right-of-way. These occurrences are tracked so that additional measures, such as surveillance cameras, fencing, and police patrols can be added to the problem areas.

One area plagued with frequent trespassers was a swimming hole discovered by many high school and college age kids looking to cool off from the summer heat. The problem was that they parked their cars on one side of the railroad right-of-way and then cross over several active tracks to their summertime gathering place. Apparently, wire cutters were always included in their standard swimming gear, because the chain-link fence couldn’t survive even a day without renewed breaches. Stronger fencing was added with some success. But probably more effective were the measures taken at their illegal parking area. With appropriate signage, the area gave directions of how to access the swim hole legally, and this parking area became an active tow away zone. Problem solved.

However, more problem areas crop up elsewhere. It’s like we’re playing the arcade game “Whac-A- Mole” here, and the mole soon popped up farther down the line.

When fishing is fabulous word spreads quickly. The bigger problem here is that this was a family event including everything from small children to the family dog trekking into dangerous territory as a shortcut to the fishing hole.

Solutions to the fishing hole were similar to the swimming hole. But not before I experienced one tragedy. There just isn’t time to react when a train comes blasting around the curve from behind at 79 mph… for me or the victims. The two beautiful dogs, running side by side down my track never knew what hit them. It’s a terrible feeling, but I’m thankful they weren’t the small children.

Education – “Teach the Children Well”

Not long ago, there was a YouTube video spreading around of a “Dare Devil” laying down on our UTA tracks and letting one of our FrontRunner trains speed over the top of him. Even though “seeing is believing”, this dramatic video seemed impossible to those of us that work here. “There just isn’t enough space to lay down on the track and not be hit by low hanging parts of the train. Add to that the high speed, with all the associated bouncing and rattling, and the video just couldn’t be real. As it turns out, it wasn’t. Though it looked absolutely convincing to the general public, video editing experts detected anomalies that showed how the train going over the top was merged with video of the “dare devil” laying down on the UTA track.

There are several serious issues that come out of this story. First and foremost, is the lie it teaches to others. How many other wannabe daredevils would believe this and try it themselves? Then of course, there’s the issue of this fellow trespassing onto the railroad track himself to set up and film his phony escapades.

With him providing such clear evidence of his own trespassing onto the FrontRunner right-of-way, the police made quick work of hunting this guy down, and the YouTube video was removed.

However, it’s not just guys like this one that glamorize hanging out on railroad tracks. In pop culture I’ve seen everything from the Rocky Balboa, of yester-year, training alongside tracks with active trains, to a 48 Hours Program of yester-week showing a woman walking along railroad tracks with a beautiful back drop so they can depict healing and serenity.

This leads to the Popularity of railroad tracks as a backdrop for such things as graduation and wedding portraits. The metaphors of life are out there. But please, don’t drink the cool-aid. It’s a lie. What they don’t show is the broken bodies and carnage.

It’s too bad there isn’t something out there that can debunk these lies and deceptions. Oh wait! There is!

Operation Life Saver is a godsend for educating the public on railroad safety. Both on a national level (here), and state wide (here). They teach rail safety in all Drivers Ed courses and to any other group or organization willing to give them a voice. Yes, they even taught a course to me and my class as part of my training to become a railroad engineer. One memorable anecdotal story I still remember from that course was the story of a fellow who thought he was being careful about putting a coin on the tracks well before the train came by. However when it did pass, instead of squashing the coin as intended, it flipped up and whizzed past his head with such velocity that it embedded in the tree next to him. Yes, with these big lumbering iron monsters, the danger is real.

So as a society, how do we develop a healthy fear of these railroad danger zones? Images in my mind, of things I’ve seen recently, haunt me. Memories of a dad slowly walking along on the ties while his little daughter carefully balances to walk on the rail, and of a grandpa with a toddler scavenging along the rails.

What are we teaching our children? Please teach the children well! As a kid bouncing a small rubber ball on a railroad platform, my dad wouldn’t let me retrieve it when it bounced down onto the rails. We walked away and left it there. I walked away with a healthy respect for the railroad right-of-way. My dad taught me well. Please teach the children well.

Enforcement – “Does anyone actually receive a citation for trespassing?”

So what are the actual laws regarding trespassing into railroad right-of-ways? In a nutshell, it’s something like this:

  • A person may not ride or climb or attempt to ride or climb on, off, under, over, or across a railroad locomotive, car, or train.
  • A person may not walk, ride, or travel across, along, or upon railroad yards, tracks, bridges, or active rights-of-way at any location other than public crossings.
  • A person may not intentionally obstruct or interfere with train operations or use railroad property for recreational purposes.

Safe railroad crossings are so important that even emergency vehicles, with lights and sirens blaring, must wait for the crossing gates and lights to clear before proceeding. And even for those of us who are working for the railroad and who are even properly equipped with proscribed safety vests and such, must follow specific protocols and have specific permission from our railroad controllers to enter this right-of-way to do our jobs.

Examples of actions considered trespassing and subject to citations and fines that we see happen frequently include:

  • Taking any shortcut across the tracks (not at a designated grade crossing).
  • Proceeding through any grade crossing that has activated gates or lights.
  • Climbing up on a locomotive (even just for a peek).
  • Cutting across from one station platform to another outside of the designated crosswalks.
  • Attempting to hang on the outside of the train when it is moving.
  • Hiking along the track within the railroad right-of-way (even out of town in the beauties of nature).

So does anyone actually receive a citation for trespassing in these places? As engineers, we call in the offence to the dispatchers, who keep a log of such activities. Frequently, these offences are in front of cameras, so we have additional evidence of the illegal activity. If the dispatcher is able to get field supervisors or police on scene quickly enough, they are also called in. Also as I said, trouble areas are identified and patrolled more heavily.

So I ask the question again. Does anyone actually receive a citation for trespassing? The simple answer is yes they do! Getting such a report of how many and what happens to them is a little more complex because there are many jurisdictions involved. Besides the UTA Police and the Utah Highway Patrol, there are many city and county police jurisdictions along our 88 miles alignment along the Wasatch Front.

However, I did speak with several police officers who work along our railroad alignment and their responses all went something like this.

“Oh yes, all the time.” The first police officer that I asked went on telling me about it so fast that the details blurred. But the bottom line is this. They are frequently writing citation for trespassing on our alignment. And depending on the seriousness of the situation, those can be pretty hefty fines. If the offence is where there is clear signage, or a repeat offender, the fines can quickly go into the hundreds. One officer explained that certain Federal trespassing offences relating to our railroad carry a $15,000.00 fine.

Paying for trespassing with more than money… When things go bad…

Here are a few more factors that make trespassing “Not Cool” from my perspective.

As I’ve said in previous blogs, everything we do when driving the train is time delayed. So if we see a trespasser ahead that we have any doubt about getting out of our way, we will automatically “dump” the train into an emergency stop. This is hard on the train parts like the wheels, and hard on our passengers as it throws them forward unexpectedly. Then even after the trespasser has cleared out of our path, the train comes to a stop and remains in “Emergency” while the entire braking system builds enough air to recharge. So this rough ride and delays are not a good experience for our passengers.

Also, suicide by train is a real thing here at FrontRunner. So anytime someone is suddenly out in front of us, we don’t entirely know their intent. There have been times that the person in front of me was definitely a troubled soul. I am convinced that at least once my emergency stop was in time to save someone from “ending it all” that day.

Not all engineers have lucked out like me that way. One fellow who was just beginning his training wasn’t as fortunate. It was after he went through the process of recovering from experiencing a suicide, I became his instructor.

At one point we were entering a station for our regular stop. This is a very stressful experience for a new engineer to stop just right anyway. But just at this moment, a guy ran forward and lunged toward our track, stopping just before going over the edge of the platform. At that point it became apparent that he was being funny for his girlfriend. My student engineer didn’t think it was funny though. He was suddenly forced to relive the traumatic suicide experience of a few weeks before. Mentally he shut down at that point. Eventually he gave up learning to be an engineer.

There are many others that make sport of playing chicken with the train. I’ve had several experiences where the trespasser was “acting cool” as they slowly clear the track in front of me just in time.

Sometimes while “being cool” they misjudge. Soon after we first started FrontRunner service, back in 2008, a fellow darted in front of the train entering the station. He made it past, but his girlfriend didn’t. She ran straight into the side of the moving train where a handrail hit her in the head so hard that she sustained brain damage that she never fully recovered from.

One lady was trying to cross over station platforms without walking down to the crossing. It was a hard jump down onto the tracks and she broke both ankles.

I’ll never forget coming upon a trespasser dressed in black at dusk. He was walking on my rail with his back to me and I didn’t see him until moments before I would hit him. I can tell you from that experience that at least sometimes you do not hear a train bearing down on you. I hit the horn and he spun around at he fell out of my path. Even though I didn’t hit him, his look of “I’m dead” on his face still haunts me.

Trespassers who are focused on one train frequently become victims of another they didn’t see or hear. Stopped freight trains in crossings scare me because of who might be climbing through and into my path. I’ve even come upon people laying on my track waiting and watching a slow moving freight train on the adjoining track.

In the same area where these previous two incidents happened, a guy climbed though a stopped freight train. Not seeing or hearing it, he walked right into the side of our fast moving FrontRunner train. The impact took his arm off.

Most of these stories are about good people who just don’t understand the danger and thus make a terrible mistake. There are a few heart wrenching stories on the internet that sums this up better than I can. Both of these stories involve kids using the railroad tracks as a backdrop for their photo shoot. One story is from right here in our Wasatch Front.

If you are ever inclined to teach your child how to walk on the rail… or skip the crossing and take a short cut… or do a Rock Balboa and “ train” next to the train… or hangout down there to take cool photos… Please view these two stories first.

ABC News story of Tragedy in rural Maryland (here.)

Union Pacific Selfie Tragedy Story (here.)

I don’t like trespassers… because I like people… and I don’t want to hurt them!

One thought on “Confessions of a Railroad Engineer – Why Trespassers Trouble Me”

  1. And the day this is posted another close call… all too often and all too sad. People really need to be careful and especially what the teach their children.

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