McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

April 4, 2014

Rail expert: Don't try to beat a train at railroad crossings

By James Beaty
Senior Editor

McALESTER — Don’t try to beat a train.

That’s the possibly lifesaving advice from Donnie Howdeshell, a locomotive engineer and Operation Lifesaver presenter for the Union Pacific Railroad.

While that may sound like a no-brainer, unfortunately a number of drivers and even pedestrians attempt to do so each year, with often deadly results.

Howdeshell spoke of railroad safety during a special UP train trip from McAlester, to the edge of Kiowa, and back, on Tuesday.

He calls the presentation “Look, Listen and Live.”

Since the Operation Lifesaver campaign began in 1972 to increase awareness regarding  railroad safety, there’s been an 87 percent decrease in incidents involving trains and either motorists or pedestrians, Howdeshell said.

Still, there are numerous collisions.

“Every three hours in the U.S., an automobile or a pedestrian is struck by a train,” Howdeshell said.

“We hit a lot of pedestrians walking the track who aren’t paying attention for whatever reason,” Howdeshell said, referring to the railroad industry nationwide.

Odds aren’t high of surviving for pedestrians or those in a vehicle that collides with a train.

“If you get hit by a train, you’re 20 times more likely to die than if you’re hit by an automobile,” Howdeshell said

He indicated he wished drivers and pedestrians would pay more attention to safety, but that, unfortunately, is not always the case.

“You know how you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” Howdeshell said.

Almost half of the collisions involving trains occur at crossings with active warning devices, according to Operation Lifesaver. Howdeshell said those who go around lowered railroad crossings should get a ticket — and not for a train trip.

“If somebody’s going around our crossing gates, they should be ticketed by local police,” he said.

He also spoke of the difficulty of stopping a train in motion. The locomotive and passenger coaches in McAlester on Tuesday weighed around 12 million pounds, he said. Another train, pulling a series loaded coal cars, weighed approximately 36 million pounds.

Still, some people seem to think stopping a train is like stopping a car.

“You’ve got steel wheels on a steel track,” Howdeshell said. “It’s physically impossible to stop on a dime.”

He asked those riding on the Columbine passenger car what they should do if they are driving and their vehicle stalls at a railroad crossing.

“If your car stalls in the middle of a crossing, what should you do?” Howdeshell asked.

“Get out!” a number of the passengers responded.

“A lot of people don’t,” Howdeshell said.

He also pointed out that there are phones installed in blue boxes at number of railroad crossings, that has a 1-800 number when the caller can reach a “live” person to tell the railroad about a stalled car.

“The dispatcher can notify approaching trains,” he said.

Walking along railroad tracks or on railroad property is considered dangerous and is a criminal offense, information from Operation Lifesaver states.

Since 1997, more people have been injured or killed in the U.S. in incidents involving trespassing than at railroad crossings, according to Operation Lifesaver.

That’s something the UP wants pedestrians and drivers to remember when around railroad tracks, according to information given during the train ride, along with the following:

• Always expect a train.

• Any time is train time.

• Stay off. Stay away. Stay alive.

“I want you to look and listen —to live,” said Howdeshell.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.