|Investigators at fatal train track death in January 2013|
Monday, May 13, 2013
SEPTA safety blitz designed to stop blood on the tracks
Posted: Thursday, May 2, 2013
The transit worker couldn’t believe what he saw. A kid riding his bike in the middle of the West Trenton Rail Line tracks. Along a set of adjacent tracks, a commuter train was bearing down behind him.
The biker kept right on pedaling, seemingly oblivious to the imminent danger, said Bill Rickett, executive director of the Bucks County Transportation Management Association.
That incident near the Neshaminy Falls station happened about a year ago during a time when SEPTA reported that 12 people died on its rail tracks.
With eight fatalities since January — with six in Bucks County — SEPTA launched an education and awareness campaign Wednesday. At the current pace, the transit authority says this year’s fatality toll could surpass last year, and the campaign is designed to remind commuters and pedestrians that railroad tracks are for trains, not people.
“Right behind me is the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey said at a news conference for the first-ever Safety Awareness Day. “You would not even consider walking across four lanes of traffic on this roadway yet people cross active train and trolley tracks or cut through our rail facilities, never considering how dangerous it is.”
The event — called “Make the Safe Choice” and part of the authority’s Safety Blitz program — had been in the works for a year, long before SEPTA officials saw the spike in track-related deaths, officials said.
Throughout the morning rush hour Wednesday, workers at more than 160 SEPTA-run centers distributed educational materials and answered questions.
Rail deaths, whether accidental or intentional, are a national epidemic, Casey said. There are about 400 deaths annually in the U.S. involving people trespassing on railways. About half are suicides, SEPTA officials said, but the rest are accidental — and preventable.
SEPTA officials say they’ve seen an increase in the number of people killed while crossing or walking on rails while distracted. At least three deaths have involved people who were wearing earphones or were using cellphones, said Scott Sauer, SEPTA’s director of System Safety and Risk Management.
“You should always expect a train,” Sauer added.
Wednesday’s press conference was held in Lower Southampton beside an unfenced portion of the West Trenton Regional rail line where four of the Bucks County deaths have occurred this year, officials said. Most have been ruled suicides.
The majority of SEPTA rail lines are unfenced, officials said. When fences or other barriers are erected around dangerous areas, workers often find people will remove them or cut holes in them to gain access to a shortcut, Sauer said.
Fencing is a solution that can lead to other problems, Sauer and others added. Enclosing an area could trap employees working on the tracks who need to get out of the way of a train. Also it could create an obstacle for first responders or commuters in the event of an emergency evacuation.
SEPTA has used engineering approaches in the past to alleviate train-pedestrian collisions. A new approach involves creating higher level platforms at stations to deter people from climbing down and crossing. Some stations also have underground pedestrian tunnels.
What could help prevent deaths more than any engineering design, officials said, is if people understood that railroad tracks can turn dangerous quickly when a train traveling at 50 mph or faster approaches.
“People are not aware of their surroundings,” said Fran Kelly, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for public and government affairs.
As a former volunteer fireman, Rickett, of the Bucks County Transportation Management Association, saw for himself what happens when a person is hit by a high-speed train.
He recalled responding to an accident scene in Hamilton, N.J., where a person was hit by an Amtrak train.
“All we found was body parts,” he said, adding the death was later ruled a suicide.
It’s a story he once shared with his own children when they were young. It’s a scene you don’t forget, he said.
“Obviously, I don’t,” he added.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@phillyBurbs.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia