By Mary Flynn/Oakland North
We’ve all been there: running late for work/school/insert-relevant-appointment-here, when a train crosses your intended path, threatening to delay your trip further. Although the temptation to cross may be great, many suppress the urge to beat the train and stay put. Those of a different opinion passing through Richmond Wednesday morning would have received a sharp safety reminder—a fairly expensive ticket.
Police teams stationed alongside the tracks were poised to address any perpetrators of rail safety violations as part of an Officer-On-A-Train program. The program aims to raise rail safety awareness, educate police from the perspective of the operating engineers, and issue tickets to safety offenders – motorists driving illegally through rail crossings or trespassers along the tracks.
As a train rolled along in the early morning light, two pedestrians ambling along the tracks were easily visible from the front windows of the train’s cab where the engineer sat in the driver’s seat. A police officer aboard the train radioed one of the police teams standing by on the ground to notify them of the pedestrians’ location. Although an engineer could see the pedestrians, it did not mean the train would be able to stop in time should someone decide to cross directly in its path.
“It takes a train moving at 55 miles per hour more than one mile to stop,” said Nancy Sheehan as she peered out the window of the passenger cab window. Sheehan is the Northern Region Coordinator for California Operation Lifesaver, the California branch of a non-profit rail safety education program. “That’s more than 18 football fields,” she said.
Sheehan was part of a team of Amtrak representatives and local law enforcement who had partnered for five hours yesterday to organize Officer-On-A-Train.
“The main thing is we want people to stay off, stay away, and stay alive,” said Amtrak Police Captain Jim Martino, echoing a safety slogan of Operation Lifesaver, for which he volunteers as teacher. “Tracks are for trains, not people,” he said.
Members of the Richmond Police Department, the Contra Costa County Sheriff Department, Operation Lifesaver, the Capital Joint Powers Authority, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the BNSF Railway rode an empty passenger train along a four-mile stretch of train tracks from Parr Boulevard to Cutting Boulevard in Richmond. When an officer riding the train spotted a rail safety violation, the officer would radio to police officers stationed along the route and they would issue tickets or verbal warnings to the offenders.
Amtrak intends to hold a similar event in the Oakland area on October 15.
Officer-On-A-Train was held in conjunction with California’s Rail Safety month of September. In 2008, California had the third highest number of highway rail grade crossing fatalities in the country, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis.
Railway personnel armed with laptops depicting satellite images of the route pointed out problematic intersections and locations of railroad “strikes,” places where pedestrians or vehicles have been hit by an oncoming train. This particular stretch of tracks has seen 25 strikes since 2005.
The event took place from 6:00-11:00 a.m., during which participants issued eight verbal warnings and nineteen citations with a minimum fine of $371.
Capt. Martino’s radio crackled, and the voice on the other end reported the two pedestrians walking along the tracks had been cited for trespassing.
“It’s nice to see their side of things,” said Lieutenant Mitch Lemay of the A.C. Transit Police, contracted with the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office, after scanning the periphery of oncoming railroad before him. “There’s definitely a problem, not only with fatalities but other incidents” he said, referring to other issues the engineers deal with – thieves stealing copper and metals from parked trains, or having rocks thrown or shots fired at them.
“We need to work a little harder and do a bit more enforcement,” he said.