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June 14, 2014

Union Pacific blows whistle for train safety

McALESTER — It takes a lot to stop a train —about 5,280 feet if the train is traveling at 55 mph.

Stephen W. Lazzari, Union Pacific Railroad’s manager of public safety for the region that includes Oklahoma, told the McAlester City Council about some aspects of railroad safety —and why UP engineers can’t simply stop blasting a train’s horn while rolling through the city.

Lazzari, who met with the city council June 10 during the council’s regular meeting at City Hall, wants people to recognize  that trains aren’t driven like an automobile, even though they may have some common features. For example, an engineer has access to a throttle to control the speed, a speed indicator, brakes and a horn, but there’s one major difference.

 Trains don’t have a steering wheel. That, of course, means a train can’t swerve to miss something on the tracks. Trains also can’t come to a sudden stop, or even slow down very quickly.

At 55 miles per hour, a train will take a mile or so to get stopped, Lazzari said. He also noted the weight differential between a train and an average-sized car.

“A 10,000 ton train is 6,000 times heavier than a car,” Lazzari said.

“Even a slow train can crush a car like a soda can, or even a large truck,” he said.

Ward 5 City Councilor Buddy Garvin asked about having a “quiet zone” for the train’s horn as it passes through McAlester. If ever a quiet zone is needed, it’s in Old Town, Garvin said.

Lazzari said there are federal requirements that must be met for an area to be declared a quiet zone.

“You will have to get with the Federal Railroad Administration,” he said.

Mayor Steve Harrison asked about the requirements for sounding the train’s horn, also known as a whistle.

“The whistle must be sounded 15 to 20 seconds prior to occupying the crossing,” Lazzari said. A designated series of both long and short blasts are required.

When the talk turned to the volume of the blasts, Lazzari said “The decibel level is set by the Federal Railroad Administration.” He also said there is no volume control accessible to the engineer in most modern trains.

“There is no way for the engineer to make it quieter or louder,” he said.

Regarding ways to avoid car-train collisions, Lazzari said it’s important to try and keep from becoming distracted when driving an automobile. He referred not only to texting and talking on cellphones when driving, but also to eating and other activities that can divert a driver’s attention.

“Put those things down when you’re driving,” he said.

Lazzari said it’s difficult for drivers and pedestrians near railroad tracks to judge exactly how fast an approaching train is traveling.

“Airplanes don’t look like they’re moving very fast” when coming in for a landing, Lazzari said. However, they’re flying in about 200 mph, he added.

By the same standard, it’s tough to judge the speed of an approaching freight train, he said.

Lazzari also cautioned drivers to be especially cautious around double sets of train tracks, because trains could be traveling in opposite directions, which means both trains may not be seen from the roadway at the same time.

As for train tracks, except when lawfully passing over an intersection or crossing, Lazzari had some words of advice for drivers and pedestrians:

“Stay off. Stay away. Stay alive.”

Contact James Beaty at

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