Pedestrian Deaths on Railroad Tracks: The Failure of Design

In 2006, 14-year old Kristen Bowen was killed on the train tracks near her house in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park. She was using a well-worn shortcut across the tracks that cut her residential neighborhood off from the school and the park they used. Four years after Kristen’s death, her twin sister committed suicide by stepping in front of a train near where Kristen was struck. Those tracks are covered with balloon memorials and crosses, commemorating those who have died.

Walter Gaffney holds a picture of his 17-year-old daughter, Mary, along the tracks where she was killed in Hyattsville, Maryland, a hotspot for pedestrian deaths. Photo: ## Carson

The Federal Railroad Administration estimates that 500 people die every year walking on railroad tracks [PDF]. But who bears the responsibility of preventing these deaths? Was it Kristen’s responsibility to avoid trespassing where freight trains roar past? Her town’s responsibility to erect a fence before being spurred on by her death? Should planners have recognized that it’s human nature for people to take a calculated risk to reach the amenities they used? Or was it the railroads’ responsibility to identify where these deaths happen and try to mitigate the risk?

A recent series by reporter Todd Frankel at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch makes clear that the responsibility is shared. But he also points a finger at the railroads, which have been obstructionist as others try to address the issue:

A few years ago, when the [Federal Railroad Administration] tried to get a better sense of who was walking on the tracks — by looking at trespassing cases that didn’t end in a casualty — regulators asked the railroads for help. They wanted the railroads’ internal trespassing reports. The railroads refused.

The agency recently was forced to concede defeat, noting that it “failed to garner the necessary support from the rail industry to conduct the study.”

Then there was the issue of where the casualties occurred.

For years, the agency required railroads to report only the county of a trespassing death or injury. Not the city. Not the closest milepost on the railroad system. Having so few details made it hard to identify hot spots for trespassing, said Ron Ries, director of the agency’s Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Division.

We reported in the spring that FRA guidance on pedestrian safety at railroad tracks focused only on approved crossings, ignoring the risks of so-called “trespassing” that occurs outside of those areas.

Only in the last year did federal law require railroads to provide GPS coordinates of the crashes. Before that, their crash reports only listed the county where the crash happened, making it impossible to identify where these crashes are clustered. Now, with better information, some danger “hotspots” became apparent.

Of course, neighborhoods who mourn death after death on nearby tracks already know they’re hotspots. In those cases, these tragedies are often predictable, as tracks cut communities off from the services they rely on.

One of those hotspots is in Hyattsville, Maryland, a nearby suburb of Washington, DC, where four people were killed on train tracks in three years.

In an interview with Streetsblog, Frankel of the Post-Dispatch said Hyattsville perfectly fits the profile of a likely hotspot for pedestrian deaths on railroad tracks: “It’s a residential neighborhood, high density, the speed limit on [the train tracks] is 70 miles per hour, you have both freight and commuter rail,” Frankel said. “And you have residential on one side, commercial on the other, so people have reasons to be going back and forth.”

He said that when he visited the site, there were obvious paths of well-worn gravel across the track, but the railroads still claim it’s impossible to know what spots are popular pedestrian crossings. Frankel said that tracks that carry fast trains have to be inspected twice a week by a slow-moving truck. Those trucks clearly see the “deer trails” worn by many feet.

In Villa Park, he said, where Kristen Bowen died, it felt like a train went by every ten minutes. The frequency of train traffic is another risk factor. And he says passenger trains are more dangerous than freight, “because the trains tend to be smaller, lighter, and faster. Quieter.” Many of these cases involved commuter rail and inter-city Amtrak trains.

At least 10 pedestrians have died on a busy section of Union Pacific tracks through downtown St. Louis and its suburbs since 1996, prompting the Post-Dispatch to investigate. Image: ##

Amtrak has vigorously opposed taking more responsibility to reduce collisions with pedestrians. The agency has flat-out said that its reason for opposing a requirement for GPS reporting of collisions was that “the accumulation of such data could potentially lead to the improper assumption that railroads have a duty toward trespassers.” While the freights complained about the potential inaccuracy of GPS locating, Amtrak just got straight to the point: Pedestrian deaths – even of people like 10-year-old Jesse Biggs or young mother Jessica Blair, both killed by Amtrak trains near St. Louis – were not their problem.

Communities often look to enforcement and barriers as the solution. They can put up fencing, like major highways usually have. They can arrest people who cross. Some demand that the railroads implement education campaigns about the danger of crossing the tracks – but the fact is, most people know that it’s risky. And every day they calculate that the risk is remote enough, and the alternate routes inconvenient enough, that they’ll roll the dice.

Barriers and education campaigns ordering people off the tracks don’t address the major problem these railroad tracks present for the mobility of people walking and bicycling. Jesse Biggs could have ridden his bicycle through a short tunnel that passes underneath the tracks, but “the sidewalk there is narrow, the vehicle traffic close and fast,” wrote Frankel. Maybe Jesse Biggs would still be alive if city planners in his town had prioritized pedestrian and bicycle connectivity. Frankel writes:

The problem is the tracks run past a large apartment complex and houses on one side, with more houses, shops and a MetroLink station on the other,” he wrote. “The nearest [automobile] crossing is almost a quarter mile away. People just walk over the rails instead. “They come and go all the time,” [Sgt. Michael Martin, who helped investigate Jesse’s death] said.

In Hyattsville, where so many people have been killed crossing the tracks, residents say walking the tracks is common: “The tracks were like a highway for walking,” said Andrew Farrington, the friend of one man who died there.

Frankel says improvements at crossings where automobile traffic meets railroad tracks have been “a public safety success story,” with motorist deaths down 80 percent since the 1980s. He says about $220 million in state and federal funding is spent annually on lights and gates at crossings. But they won’t even address pedestrian safety concerns in the places like Villa Park and Hyattsville, where deaths on the tracks have become unnervingly common. Some railroads have even fought efforts to compel them to sound a warning or whistle as they approach train bridges and populated areas — a simple measure proven to save lives.

22 thoughts on Pedestrian Deaths on Railroad Tracks: The Failure of Design

  1. “Some railroads have even fought efforts to compel them to sound a warning or whistle as they approach train bridges and populated areas.”

    It’s often not the railroads who oppose these measures but the NIMBYs who would rather see people die than hear train horns.

  2. Suburbia sprawls around the open train tracks, and it’s the railroads’ fault?  If it’s important, why can’t the community put up fences?

  3. At the Operation Lifesaver conference in Baltimore a couple of years ago, one railroad talked about the success they had with fences and video monitoring to reduce “trespassing”.  The tracks ran between student housing and a university.  How far was it between legal crossings?  2 miles.  Did they look at putting in an additional crossing so the detour would only be 1 mile?  “There wasn’t an obvious place where people wanted to cross.”  Right.  Giving pedestrians a safe AND convenient place to cross will accomplish a lot more than giving them a 2 mile detour and a lot of talk about trespassing and danger.

  4. Good god, the RRs in these areas have been there for over 150 years. The towns grew up around the tracks and now it’s the RRs fault? @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus  is right that it is the NIMBYs that do not want train horns blown at legal grade crossings. At illegal crossings, the RRs probably do not want to blow the horn because in court, that would be construed as lending legitimacy to illegal crossing and trespassing.

    Put yourself in an RR’s shoes: you run equipment that weighs 100s of tons and takes over a mile to stop. Your infrastructure is long corridors that are impossible to secure; if you build fences, people will cut holes in them, and then you’ll be sued when someone dies for not maintaining the fence. RR tracks are private property and people trespassing on them should be arrested. Walking on active RR tracks, especially a trestle or bridge, is incredibly stupid. Why should you be responsible for other people’s stupidity?

    If cities have decided to allow development along RR tracks, then the cities and developers should be responsible for constructing safe grade crossings or grade-separated facilities. Amtrak’s response is dead-on: the RR has no duty toward trespassers. And they are trespassers, not “so-called trespassers”.

  5. @northendmatt:disqus I’ve heard of many towns that wanted “quiet” crossings (and got them). And then the same NIMBYs will complain about the increase in accidents at the quiet crossings, even after the railroad told them that this was a foregone conclusion.

    As for the rest of your post, I do agree that trespassers are not the railroad’s problem. In most cases the railroad was there long before any development. If you want to develop land on both sides of railroad tracks, then it becomes the developer’s responsibility to build and maintain a safe way to cross the tracks, not the railroad’s. The only time I would say this wasn’t so is if the development was there first.

    Deaths on railroad tracks are tragic to be sure. However, I get tired of hearing calls for the railroad to “do something” about cars getting hit at grade crossings, or people getting hit crossing or walking along the tracks. Exactly what would constitute “doing something” in these scenarios? In most cases legal railroad crossings already have gates and signals. If a driver chooses to go around the gates, how or why is that the railroad’s problem? Same thing if someone crosses the tracks on foot. I fully sympathize that it’s very inconvenient to  have to detour miles for legal crossings. At the same time however, the railroads can’t allow crossing their tracks anywhere. If there are popular locations to cross, then it’s up to the locality to pay to build and maintain safe crossings, preferably grade-separated, unless of course the development came before the railroad. These crossings don’t even have to cost much. A simple culvert under the tracks with a dirt path leading to it is often sufficient for both pedestrians and cyclists.

    At the heart of the matter here is the simple concept that not all of our society can be “pedestrian-friendly”. In order to efficiently move goods and people, we’ve accepted that pedestrians don’t belong in places like highways and train tracks. For years nobody really questioned this idea. Now all of a sudden people getting killed on highways and railroad tracks, even subway tracks, is becoming the latest pet cause. It’s one thing to say pedestrians should be safe on local streets. There you pretty much have universal support. The liveable streets movement loses traction when implying that everywhere should be safe for pedestrians, even places where for decades there has been a social contract excluding pedestrians in the interests of moving goods or people. You don’t change the rules in the middle of the game. We have high-speed corridors for cars and railway vehicles where people just don’t belong. We may even have them for bikes and velomobiles someday.

    If anything, the fact that in some places people use railroad tracks “like highways for walking” speaks to the need to build more pedestrian infrastructure. If there is sufficient room along the right-of-way, you could even put in a fenced off walking/biking trail next to the railroad tracks, provided the railroad allowed this.

  6. John Z Wetmore,
    Yes, building a new place to cross would help some.  But as noted in the article, people will still calculate the risk and think that they can somehow beat the odds.

    About 15 years ago I was driving north on the Harlem River Drive in Manhattan only to hit a slow down.  The slow down was caused by an accident in the southbound lanes & typical rubber necking.  The accident was someone who’d been hit by a car as he tried to run across the highway’s 6 lanes,  3 north & 3 south.

    The man who tempted the fates, as I later learned on the news, was unfortunately killed.  His body landed about 20 to 30 feet from where he was hit, and he was lying directly under a pedestrian bridge that had been built for the very purpose of allowing people to cross the highway to reach the small park on the East River.

    For want of not wishing to walk a few extra feet and climb that bridge, this man lost his life. 🙁

    So yes, cutting that walk from 2 miles down to 1 mile will encourage some to take the detour, but sadly I suspect that most will simply keep taking the risk.  That poor man that I saw lying in the road would walk an extra 30 feet if that.  Well maybe by the time he walked down on the other side it might have been 60 extra feet.  Either way, far short of a mile.

  7. Joe R. “If anything, the fact that in some places people use railroad tracks “like highways for walking” speaks to the need to build more pedestrian infrastructure. If there is sufficient room along the right-of-way, you could even put in a fenced off walking/biking trail next to the railroad tracks, provided the railroad allowed this.”

    This is what I was talking about.  Give pedestrians an attractive alternative, and folks that are just trying to get somewhere will use it.  Walking on ties and ballast is not very attractive when there is a parallel paved path.  And there are many examples of Rails With Trails in the U.S. along smaller railroads.

    Unfortunately, the major railroads are very resistant to paths anywhere close to their right-of-way, much less within their right-of-way.  They focus almost entirely on the symptoms of the problem (pedestrians on the tracks), rather than working with localities to provide solutions to the underlying problem of pedestrian infrastructure. 

    The symptoms are not going to go away until you cure the underlying problem. 

  8. Engineers can and will sound the whistle to warn trespassers, even where noise ordinances exist. No one wants to deal with these type incidents.

  9. Horns won’t help.  A high-speed train will be on you before you can react.  This is natural selection: too stupid or too lazy to avoid an obvious risk.  Moreover, involving the railroad is just trying to get them to shoulder what is clearly the town’s problem.  No one told you to put housing on the other side of railroad tracks.  No one forced you to buy a home near the northeast corridor.

  10. Ouch, @MisterWhiskey:disqus . Can I humbly suggest you watch the video that’s part of the Post-Dispatch series before calling these dead kids stupid and lazy, and that their deaths are just “natural selection”?

    I understand that you think personal responsibility is the key here and railroads and planners shouldn’t have to be the ones to prevent these deaths, but these are real people who died — a lot of them really young. Let’s at least have some respect for the enormous, painful hole they leave in the lives of their loved ones.

  11. @tanyasnyder:disqus @MisterWhiskey:disqus @facebook-1073500208:disqus @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus  I work with people in the RR industry, and there are many people in the industry who do take safety very seriously. The industry has tried to be proactive through public education campaigns like Operation Lifesaver ( I understand that these are real people who died and that is sad, but that does not change the fact that trespassing on RR tracks is a very foolish thing to do. And on the other side, I’ve met locomotive engineers who were operating a train when it struck someone, and many of them suffer greatly as well – it is a huge psychological trauma to witness and be a part of the end of someone’s life, even if there is nothing you can do to stop it.
    My comment from yesterday seems a little harsh in retrospect but the key things to understand here are: (a) RRs are private property and private corporations that face significant legal liability in accidents, (b) by the time an engineer sees someone, it’s too late to do anything, and (c) an RR is an industrial operation, and pedestrians don’t belong on an RR ROW any more than they belong in a factory.

    As an example, consider providing a paved path on the RR ROW that is fenced off from the tracks. If a train derails, anyone walking or biking the vicinity is dead. If there are land uses people want to access on both sides, you face the unattractive options of providing multiple expensive grade crossings or grade separations, or inviting people to vandalize the fence. Then when they get hit by a train, it’s your fault in court for not maintaining the fence.

  12. @northendmatt:disqus Obviously a fenced-off paved path running next to the tracks is less than ideal for the reasons you say, but if many people tend to walk along railroad tracks in an area it’s the lesser of two evils. If sufficient undeveloped land exists next to the right-of-way, you could have a buffer of ten feet or more between the tracks and the path to minimize casualties in case of a derailment. Or better yet, simply have sidewalks on roads paralleling the railroad. A major reason why many people choose to walk along the tracks is because it’s a seemingly safer alternative than walking on the narrow shoulder of a road with fast, aggressive motor traffic. In the final analysis, if localities provided better pedestrian facilities, it could go a long way towards keeping people off railroad tracks.

  13. Ahblid:
    Here is a discussion of when pedestrian bridges work well, and when they don’t: 

    A well-designed bridge in a well-designed context will attract most pedestrians. 

    As much as railroads hate grade crossings, there are circumstances where a grade crossing makes more sense than a bridge.  Australia has a good design for crossing gates at pedestrian grade crossings.

    There are people who will continue to do stupid things, but smart infrastructure design inspires smart behavior in most people.


    BTW, crossing the tracks and traveling parallel to the tracks are two very different issues with different solutions.

  14. @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus  well, the weird thing is, from the perspective of the RR’s legal liability, having a path is worse, because now you’ve created the “perception” that people belong on the ROW. As private entities, RRs do not enjoy the blanket legal protections that protect cities and states from lawsuits. Having sidewalks on parallel roads is a much, much better solution.

    @facebook-1073500208:disqus  the legal complications extend to grade crossings as well. Some RRs are indifferent – their opinion is that if you want to pay for the installation and maintenance of a new grade crossing, go ahead. Other RRs see every grade crossing as a lawsuit waiting to happen.

  15. Northendmatt:
    I have relatives in the railroad industry.  I have been to railroad safety conferences.  But I am also a pedestrian, and I understand what motivates pedestrians to do what they do.

    My problem with railroad safety and pedestrians is that they have an orchestra that plays one note.  Everyone is a trespasser, just keep away.  OK.  But why are they trespassing?  It is just a symptom of an underlying problem — inadequate opportunities to cross the tracks and inadequate opportunities to travel parallel to the tracks.

    Railroads are different than factories.  Railroads form a continuous obstacle a thousand miles long.  And you can’t go around the end because it connects to another railroad.

    I don’t need to go back to the origins of railroads to find special treatment and government subsidies for railroads.  Amtrak receives billions of dollars in government subsidies.  The freight railroads are receiving hundreds of millions of tax dollars to make upgrades for doublestacks in advance of Panamax.  Can’t we expect them to treat the communities they pass through with a little more respect than just an argument about who was there first?

  16. @facebook-1073500208:disqus  I’m a pedestrian too. I understand desire lines. But there are several issues in play, not just inadequate opportunity to cross tracks. For one, there is human foolishness, as also evidenced by drivers who think they can “beat” the train at a grade crossing. There is just plain bad decision making – the people sitting on a trestle over a stream weren’t trying to get anywhere, they made a bad choice about their leisure time. You also frequently see people on dirt bikes; they’re also making a bad choice in where to recreate.

    In places where there is the need for better parallel and perpendicular connections, we’d be much better off improving ped/bike facilities on streets. After all, no one is trying to go to the RR; they are trying to go between two places that happen to have an RR in between. That means there is a street network that might need better bike/ped facilities or better connectivity across the RR, but that’s the job of the city.

    I understand it would be nice if RRs would take these things on themselves. But if you’re asking a corporation to spend money on something that would increase its legal liability and provide no return to shareholders, it’s a pretty long shot.

  17. Northendmatt:
    You bring up an important point – people are in the railroad right-of-way for a wide variety of reasons.  The article was mostly about pedestrians trying to get across the tracks, so that was the focus of my comments.  But there are people for whom the right-of-way is a destination.  As you say, a place to ride their dirt bikes.  Or a deserted place for teenagers to hang out and drink.  Or any number of activities. Many of which undoubtedly deserve action by the railroad police.  Nevertheless, a one-size-fits-all solution is not going to work very well because it ignores the diversity in people’s underlying motivations.

    A few years ago in Arizona a railroad was concerned about people sitting on their tracks where the rail line ran parallel to a major road.  Bus passengers walked over to the tracks and sat on the rails while they waited for the bus.  So the railroad pressured the city to discontinue bus service along that road, which the city did.  But why were the bus passengers sitting on the rails?  What was their motivation?  They sat there because there were no benches at the bus stops, and if they sat on the curb their feet would stick out into busy traffic.  For the same amount of effort, the railroad could have pressured the city to install benches at the bus stops.  They could have solved their problem in a way that made life better for the bus passengers, rather than in a way that made life worse. 
    There is also the issue of suicide, which is a large fraction of railroad deaths.  Someone motivated to kill themselves is not likely to be influenced by a PSA telling them that it is illegal to stand on the tracks.  A PSA telling them that trains can kill you might even be counter-productive.

    If railroads wonder why they have had so little success addressing the problem of people in the right-of-way, they need to step back and take a hard look at what they have been doing.  Have they payed any attention to the Marketing 101 lesssons about looking at what motivates people?  Have they looked at the diversity of motivations they are dealing with?  Do they have any ideas to offer that solve people’s problems?  The same old tired rhetoric about trespassing has not been working. 

  18. We do know how to solve this problem, and prevent these fatailties — by giving people a safe place to walk.  A 2009 survey of 21 trails along active rail lines in California showed no fatalities — in fact not a single incident between a trail user and a train.  Thousands of people walk close to moving trains daily in places like San Clemente CA, and Ashland VA, where trains run several miles through town along residential streets with dozens of grade crossings.  

    Liability is no excuse:  in Virginia, the state will assume liability for public use of private land.  So allowing public access on railroad property actually reduces the railroad’s liability.  Many other jurisdictions have similar provisions.

    Rails-with-trails are the answer.

  19. Three days ago I watched a woman with a bicycle cartwheel 8 feet up and 12 feet over after being struck by a train.( She lived!!) She was walking southbound in a north bound lane therefore the gate was on the wrong side of the tracks for her. She was cutting between the two gates, using them as a stop light to cross the street safely. I thought she would pull up as the train came but no dice. I was left wondering, What is the correct way to shout to someone about to get hit?!? Is it a good idea to scream to get their attention when the train is seconds away?!?! … “Hey! Lookout!!”‘ And when they turn to you…. Bam!!! Is there a correct way to do this? Thanks….

  20. Yesterday I watched a video about a train tragedy that happened Oct 2018 in Amritsar, India. Crowds of people had gathered for an evening religious festivity & the crowd was so large it backed up to and down over the train tracks. At the height of the celebration a train came roaring along, mowing down a few hundred people & killing 59 people. The speed was astounding. Watching the horrendous video I only saw one man react & move, sadly into the wrong direction.
    Based on that, I would say if a person had time to yell anything at all, it probably should be in the form of “Train, move back” or “move back, move back…” At least if they heard the direction, it would be one less calculation they’d need to make in their confusion.

  21. She lived. I saw her six months later after she got out of mental and drug re-hab. She looked so good I didn`t recognize her. Only her possesions. I asked her , “What happened?!?” And she said simply, “I thought I was clear…”

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