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Wrong Side of the Tracks

So far this year, two people have been killed on Colorado railways. But there are six victims.

"That has been a longstanding problem with the way police officers approach train investigations," says Craig LeVere, a sergeant with the Colorado State Patrol. "What we're training officers to do now is consider these train men victims." Law-enforcement officers now attend courses taught in conjunction with Operation Lifesaver, a national organization that works to educate drivers on the risks of contact with trains. The courses are designed to teach officers the unique requirements for dealing with train accidents. LeVere, who teaches some of the classes, says they are eye-openers for his peers.

The courses often involve officers taking a train ride so they can see things from an engineer's perspective. Much of the course involves changing old, highway-based policies. Instead of asking for a conductor's automobile license and registration, police now ask for engineering licenses and company identification. And while the names of crew members cannot be kept from a police report, officers use work numbers and addresses for contact information, reducing the chances of a survivor contacting the train crew. Cops are also taught how to properly conduct an investigation of a train accident, which can be crucial in later court cases. LeVere says crash survivors sometimes sue for damages from rail companies, even when those victims were clearly at fault. "I've been involved in some of these cases," he says, "and that's been frustrating for me. A guy doesn't stop at a stop sign and his wife gets killed, but now he's suing the railroad when he didn't do what he's supposed to do."

And more people are doing what they're not supposed to do. Population growth along the Front Range has increased the number of people trespassing on Colorado tracks--everyone from urban and suburban residents using tracks as walking paths to recreationists taking advantage of rails and tunnels as shortcuts to better hunting, fishing, hiking and kayaking. "That kind of activity is on the rise," says Eric Sondeen, a Littleton firefighter who volunteers as the state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver. "We're seeing a tremendous population increase in both our full-time population and our visitor population, and these people are putting themselves in harm's way."

Engineers say the Tunnel District, the region that stretches from the foothills west of Rocky Flats up through Eldorado Canyon and Winter Park, is a frequent site for Lycra-clad outdoor types to risk life and limb. Sondeen says the public's misconception that rail traffic is down may be leading people to hike along tracks and through tunnels. "There are more trains running more miles and carrying greater capacities than ever before," he points out. "The myth is 'There probably won't be a train here,' but the reality is 'There probably will be a train here.' What we're stressing is that people should always expect a train, at any time, in any direction and on any track."

In 1998, over half of the deaths on America's tracks were those of individuals illegally on rail-company property. In addition to clueless hikers, there's the problem of freight-hoppers. The majority of people who try to jump onto moving trains are, like Depression-era hobos, trying to catch free rides south in the winter, but when the weather warms up, railyard security guards see an increased number of "yuppie freight-hoppers"--misguided men who consider the activity a type of romantic, mythological sport. People who hang out in railyards for other reasons--photographers looking for artistic shots, for example--are killed by trains being moved about on the railyard tracks. They often have no warning, since today's welded-steel rails have eliminated the rhythmic track rattle of days past. Rail companies are doing their best to hold down the growing number of potential victims: Nationwide, Union Pacific reports, "trespasser evictions" increased from 42,800 in 1997 to 48,099 in 1998.

Even when trespassers escape injury or death on a train track, Sondeen says, these close calls are potentially deadly for a train crew. "The engineer doesn't know you're safe or if you're going to step off the track, and he has to make the decision of whether to put the train into emergency and put themselves and their load in jeopardy. And they need to make that decision a mile from where they see the individual on the track." Anyone willing to risk contact with a train, he notes, "is making a bad risks-to-benefits analysis."

The foolish behavior engineers witness daily is a source of constant frustration and potential danger. For starters, drivers fail to understand the optical illusion created by a train racing down a track. The train appears to be moving slowly, giving drivers a false impression that they have time to beat it through a crossing. They say the public is also unaware of the lengthy stopping distances trains require, distances that can reach up to a mile and a half for a loaded, 100-plus freight train or a high-speed passenger train. Especially frustrating for train crews is the fact that more than half of all train collisions with cars and trucks occur during daylight hours, at crossings where flashing lights and crossing gates are in place. More puzzling, a quarter of all train-car collisions involve a car running into a train that's already in the crossing.

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