WASHINGTON – Tragedy hit Laurel on April 23, when a 14-year-old boy reportedly taking a shortcut across railroad tracks was struck by a CSX train and died.
Unfortunately, nothing about the fatal accident is all that unusual.
Since 2003 Prince George’s County has averaged slightly more than one death per year from people trespassing on railroad property, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
Montgomery County sees the most trespasser fatalities in Maryland, averaging three deaths per year, and claiming 33 percent of the state’s 55 total deaths since 2003. It has the highest population of any Maryland county, and sees heavy railroad traffic from both MARC service and freight trains running through Maryland to West Virginia.
Overall, the state has averaged slightly more than nine trespasser deaths per year since 2003.
“Trespassing on a railroad’s private property and along railroad rights of way is the leading cause of rail-related fatalities in America,” said a 2008 report by the Federal Railroad Administration. Nationwide, there are about 500 trespassing-related deaths every year.
Some of the problem is that people who aren’t paying attention may not hear a train coming, said Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the FRA.
“Locomotives are much quieter now, and also we have what’s called continuous welded rail. The sections of rail are welded together, so you don’t have that ‘clickety-clack’ sound like you did in the past,” Kulat explained. “People who are talking on a cell phone or listening to an iPod aren’t going to hear it. A train going 60 mph takes about a mile to stop, so there’s no way the train can stop in time.”
Transit officials say trespass fatalities happen for a variety of reasons — everything from accidents with people who cross train tracks as a shortcut to people who choose trains as a means of committing suicide.
“We did a demographics study that shows that the average trespass fatality is a 34-year-old white male who is drunk,” Kulat said.
Trespasser activity on railroad tracks, even without an actual accident, also causes delays in train service, because any suspicious activity must be investigated, said Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman Jawauna Greene.
“Especially after 9/11, when trespassers are spotted by engineers or spotted by people on the train, we do have to investigate and inspect for sabotage. If nothing else, from a security perspective,” Greene said.
Capital News Service analyzed MARC data on the documented causes of train delays for the period from January 2003 through November 2008. About 40 trespasser-related incidents resulted in MARC train delays during that six-year period.
Of those delays, about 15 occurred because a trespasser was actually struck by either a MARC or freight train, according to the data notations.
In the non-accident cases, the trespasser activities varied widely. For example, in the two-year period from January 2005 through the end of December 2006, MARC train travel was delayed on nine separate days for trespasser-related reasons not actually involving an accident. Two were due to apparent suicide attempts — one person lying on the tracks, another on a bridge above the tracks. On July 20, 2006, service was delayed due to “juveniles” throwing stones at train cars.
On June 27, 2006, train traffic was delayed due to people “dancing” on the tracks. “Necessary to have the police go and remove the ‘dancing people’ from the scene,” the record reads.
Probably the most bizarre delay recorded in the MARC data occurred on Aug. 16, 2004, when train travel halted due to police investigating a “human hand found in the switch.”
Any time a trespasser is spotted it sets off a chain reaction along the train line, explained Greene. The MTA contracts with Amtrak to handle most investigations and inspections of that nature.
“They would call in their inspectors and send inspectors and supervisors out,” Green said. “They also can contact law enforcement, and in a lot of cases these agencies have agreements with local law enforcement to get additional assistance.”
Inspectors assess the situation, then take the necessary next step, be it calling in mental health experts for an attempted suicide or law enforcement for a security threat.
Of course, the entire process creates transit delays. Everything from scheduling of train platforms to track switching can be affected.
“When trains are late people think, ‘Oh, what the heck are they doing?’ But behind the scenes there could be any number of things going on,” Greene said.
Even fences built along railroad tracks aren’t enough of an obstacle to deter trespassers.
“You can’t fence off every bit of track, and when you try to do that people cut holes in it,” Kulat said. “This is a steady, consistent problem, of deaths that are preventable.”