FRA Guidance on Pedestrian Safety Still Misses the Real Problem

Image: ##http://oli.org/##Operation Lifesaver##

The Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t call people walking near railroad tracks “pedestrians.” It calls them “trespassers.”

True, a person walking on railroad tracks is often, by definition, breaking the law, since the tracks are private property. But the nomenclature gives the impression that the agency might be somewhat less sympathetic than they should be about the 427 people who lost their lives last year walking on or near railroad tracks. And last year was a good year – the FRA estimates the average to be about 500 deaths annually [PDF].

The FRA just issued Guidance on Pedestrian Crossing Safety At or Near Passenger Stations [PDF]. This document deals with “pedestrians,” not  “trespassers,” because it deals only with officially sanctioned crossings, and only those at or near stations. “It’s a guide to best practices in crossing engineering, warning devices, markings, signage, that kind of thing,” FRA spokesperson Rob Kulat told me.

The document was released in compliance with the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which mandated that such guidance be issued within a year of enactment.

OK, so it’s two and a half years late. It’s still a useful resource for the municipalities and states that want to build or improve rail crossings at or near stations – after all, according to Kulat, the FRA isn’t the one responsible for these crossings.

What the document doesn’t do is give guidance about when and where crossings should be added to prevent injury and increase mobility. In a 2008 fact sheet [PDF], the agency explicitly says, “The FRA’s focus is on preventing rail trespassing, not enabling it by making the behavior safe.” The safety document released this month features a wide range of recommendations for enabling safe crossings, but only where they’re currently sanctioned. The people who cross the tracks to get to school or their aunt’s house or the post office are still just trespassers whose injuries are their own fault.

The FRA, along with several major rail companies and Amtrak, are partners of Operating Lifesaver, a 40-year-old nonprofit dedicated to rail safety education. On the Operation Lifesaver website, under the headline “Dumb Move,” is a video of two teenaged boys listening to iPods and walking along a train track, apparently unaware that “it takes a mile to stop a train.” And it features the story of Shawn Potter, a 15-year-old who died playing “chicken” on train tracks, “waiting for a train to come through so they could have the thrill of jumping off seconds before it roared past.”

Those stories castigate the dead for being “dumb” and playing with fire. But considering that rail tracks often bisect cities and even neighborhoods, dividing people from services and other community amenities, it’s not fair to treat all illegal crossings as irresponsible trespasses.

Last year, a Michigan man’s arm was severed as he tried — not just to cross train tracks — but to actually climb over a stopped train that was in his way. His two-year-old son was on his shoulders. One shudders to think what could have happened. But the police lieutenant didn’t call him dumb or reckless, even for doing something so dangerous with a toddler. “The only way you can get to anything in that area — the store, the post office, City Hall, the pharmacy — you have to cross those tracks,” the officer said.

It would make sense for rail entities to pay attention to where people are “trespassing” on railroad tracks and figure out how to accommodate them safely. Rather than blame the victims, planners could see these illegal crossings as a sort of “desire line,” like the dirt paths that get carved into grass over years of use because it’s the most direct way to walk, even if there’s no sanctioned path there.

That’s how it went in Encinitas, California, where beachgoers lugging surfboards regularly crossed train tracks to reach the Swamis surfing spot. More than 50 trains a day went by, making the crossing a dangerous undertaking, but the closest legal crosswalk was more than a mile away. Rather than reprimand the “trespassers,” however, the city did something far more productive: build a grade-separated walkway.

The FRA’s guidance is a good resource, but it risks missing the forest for the trees. Pedestrian injuries near train tracks are as much an urban design problem as they are a behavior issue. Maybe the next document can issue guidance to municipalities, helping them pinpoint where crossings should be located to improve mobility and access. Once they do that, it’ll be great to have this latest document, helping them design effective audible and visual signaling, bright yellow markings, swing gates, and eye-catching signs.

  • Nice one.

  • Well said. Like freeways, railroad tracks can be as dangerous and impenetrable as the Berlin Wall.  The FRA’s members have an obligation to work with city leaders to plan safe access across their tracks.

  • Anonymous

    Even just placing bells and lights at known crossing points, as well as making sure the surface doesn’t have unexpected tripping hazards, seems like it should make the crossing quite safe for the vast majority of people. It’s not that hard to avoid a train. Suicides and thrill-seekers are a separate issue, though.

  • While I agree with the basic premise that rail crossings should be improved, this article unfairly castigates rail safety efforts for correctly pointing out that walking on a railroad track is a dangerous activity.  The article neglected to mention that the FRA report it linked to reported that two-thirds of railroad fatalities involved the consumption of alcohol and drugs.  The article also neglected to report that 167 fatalities or 17.9 percent were likely suicides.  No amount of “effective audible and visual signaling, bright yellow markings, swing gates, and eye catching signs” will stop fatalities if the victims are drunk, high, or set on taking their own life.  I think that in densely populated areas, spending more highway dollars on grade separations would have a measurable effect on reducing lives lost at crossings.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think that pedestrians advocates should support people using the railroads as a shortcut. It wouldn’t be any different than supporting people using waterways or some private properties as a shortcut. While there’s a desire to have as many shortest paths as possible (to promote more walking and less dependence on automobiles), there are reasonable limits, and that’s one of them.

    Making the railroad corridor to accommodate bike/ped movement is a different. However unlike roads, the cities can’t just unilaterally pave paths, or the slow down trains to do that. The cities have to work with the railroads to make such accommodation possible. Generally the railroads would want the cities to completely pay for the upgrades, not to significantly interfere with train movements/track maintenance, or place significant liability on the railroads. Some railroads are more proactive in accommodating these upgrades yet some others are quite hostile. A standardized protocol between the railroads and communities on handling these upgrades, along with some ways of funding them, would go a long way.

  • Anonymous

    But Tanya, they are trespassing on an established transportation corridor that usually was in place long long before development came to the area.  

    We certainly would not be asked to have empathy for someone struck by a vehicle using a limited-access highway or a runway, would we?

    What we have here is evidence of neglect by local leaders and developers who were and are too cheap to put in the infrastructure needed to allow safe passage over or under the railway.

    Also, can you point us to where you are getting the figure of 427 deaths by pedestrian trespassers?  And of those how many were suicides?

  • Anonymous

    “That said, we have learned from the returned forms that trespassers who die are, on 
    average, 38 years old and most often Caucasian males.  Approximately two-thirds were 
    under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.  There is considerable regional variation.  
    The gender split is 13 percent female, and 16 percent have Hispanic ethnicities.  
    Trespasser fatalities are racially diverse, i.e., 78 percent White, 16 percent Black, 5 
    percent Native American, and 1 percent Asian. 

    Coroners used the words “suicide” or “intentional” in describing 18 percent of the 
    incidents.  In reviewing their descriptions, an additional 5 percent have been classified as 
    probable suicides.  The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations do not require 
    railroads to report suicides (See Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations CFR Section 
    225.15), so reported suicides inflate the trespass problem.”

    18 percent are suicides and it’s mostly stupid white trash getting hit by trains. Not sure why Streetsblog cares. 

  • Marmiee5

    Does Spokker know what year that report citing white, 38 year olds, 2/3 under the influence was completed?   I also believe suicides are being counted now, separately. The figure 427 is the official FRA tally (see Safety Data under fra.gov) for pedestrians killed on the tracks nationwide in 2011.  Demographic data is also available.

  • Tanya Snyder

    @TAPman:disqus here’s the link to the 427 figure: http://oli.org/about-us/news/statistics/trespassing-fatalities-by-state

  • Pollock508

    Good to know that personal responsibility is alive and well in America. The only way someone can get hit by a train is if they on are on or way to close to train tracks. If a person were walking down the middle of an interstate highway in the black of night, would you blame the driver for hitting them? Of course you would Tanya because in your world, everyone is a victim and nobody is responsible for what happens to them. It’s ironic that in this age of empowerment, people like you look to make victims out of everyone.

  • Anonymous

    Marmiee5, it was the report linked in this post. The report was released March 2008. 

  • Anonymous

    The report even includes a picture of a couple of rednecks walking the tracks. 

  • Davistrain

    As a railfan and one-time railroad employee, this article caught my interest.  (I first learned about Streetsblog through a link from a rail-transit website).  The late George Carlin had this to say about pedestrian/trespasser vs. train situations:
    “This item demonstrates how stupid the average American is.  Every ninety minutes someone in this country is hit by a train.  A train, okay?  Trains are on tracks; they can’t come and get you.  They can’t surprise you when you step off a curb.  You have to go to them.  Got that?”
    In numerous instances, railroads or municipalities have constructed fences to discourage dangerous unauthorized pedestrian crossings of busy tracks, and, unless the fence is super-strong, the local yokels will cut holes in it at their favorite shortcuts.  An example was in the town of Davis CA, where a trailer park was literally “on the wrong side of the tracks”, and the financially challenged residents had to cross tracks with major Amtrak California and UP freight traffic to go to the store.  Needless to say, they weren’t crossing the rails to get to a Mensa meeting.  There is a tunnel, but it’s a considerable distance away, especially if you don’t have an operable car or pickup truck.
    One veteran railroader said something like, “When I was a boy, it was my dream to become a locomotive engineer.  The dream turns into a nightmare after a few “trespasser fatality” incidents.”

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