Wrong Side of the Tracks

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

"I don't know how to explain it," says Sondeen. "It's beyond me. The reason I'm in Operation Lifesaver is because if I can help people understand it, I'd rather do that than have to respond to a 911 call after the fact. There's not much I can do at that point." Sondeen leads a staff of local volunteers, most of them engineers and conductors, who teach courses in rail safety to schools, police departments and other interested groups.

But such educational efforts are lost when people simply act like idiots. "As our population has boomed, drivers are using their cars as time machines rather than transport vehicles, and we're getting in trouble with that," Sondeen says. "People are not using caution around crossings, and 'road rage' translates directly into people's behavior around crossings: People aren't willing to take the time to wait."

In an attempt to limit the opportunities for impatient drivers to kill themselves, federal and state officials are reducing the number of public rail crossings. In 1991 the U.S. Department of Transportation pledged to cut the number of crossings by 25 percent before the year 2001; since then, the number of crossings has been reduced by more than 33,000. Between 1996 and 1997, Colorado cut the number of statewide crossings from 3,623 to 3,270.

For freight haulers, dumb drivers are a constant source of trouble. "We have certain crossings where we know people are gonna try to beat us," says J.J. Witt, staring out the window of his engine as it rolls across the countryside south of Castle Rock. "People just don't care," he says. "If you're going to delay them a minute or two while the train goes by, that's worth risking their life for. When it first happens, it's kind of surreal. You sit there and think, 'I can't believe somebody was stupid enough to go out in front of us like that.' But to the public, we're always at fault. 'That damn train ran right into that car.'"

Witt is joined in the sleek cabin of his brand-new SV Mack 70 engine by conductor Ken Masias and student engineer Steve Mullins. Masias sits on the left of the cab, eyeing a digital speedometer and a folder of log sheets before him. Mullins, a two-year trainee and the son of a retired engineer, sits in a captain's chair on the right, piloting the engine as Witt supervises. The three men have been rolling since 6:30 in the morning, traveling north from Pueblo to Denver. Mullins works the lever controlling the train's speed, brakes and direction of travel. A small computer screen in front of him displays the engine's vitals. Behind him, 3,100 tons and 6,486 feet of train snake across a sun-kissed landscape.

To Mullins's right is the train's emergency brake. He hasn't had to engage it today, but if he does, the men know what to expect. Mullins will shift the lever into place, the train's brakes will lock up, and 118 empty coal cars will lurch forward and gobble up the slack in their couplings. A battleship's worth of steel and machinery will slam into a skid, and as the wheels dig down on the tracks, the crew will reach for a handhold and await an impact with whatever's in their path. Witt has had to "plug it" before in several close calls, six collisions and a suicide.

"I hit a car once," he recalls of a 1981 incident in his home state of Texas. "The crossing gates were down, cars stopped on both of the crossing gates. Three college girls drove up and flew by all these cars through the gates." He pauses a moment to spit the shells of a sunflower seed into a plastic bottle. "The driver was killed, the girl in the backseat was killed. We went to get 'em out, and the passenger in front, she was hysterical, screaming, 'Don't kill me, don't kill me.' The other two still had the champagne glasses in their hands that they'd left the bar with. You remember every detail of something like that."

A quarter-mile from the first of a series of crossings, Mullins sounds the engine's whistles in accordance with federal rail laws. As the train continues, a computer-generated voice comes across the cabin radio and acknowledges that all of the train's equipment is working properly. Up ahead, gates drop at the crossing and a pair of signal lights facing the train shine green. "If we derail, that guy's dead," Witt says, nodding toward a car that has inched over the crossing marks on the pavement. After the train travels a few more miles and quietly slips past the town's outlet shops, a cement mixer rolls up to another intersection as warning lights flash and the train whistle bellows. But instead of stopping, the truck driver hits the gas, bouncing across the tracks, framed in the green lights indicating to the crew that the track is clear. As the truck rumbles hurriedly over the rails, the crossing gate drops within a few inches of its mixer. "Look at that guy," Witt grumbles, shaking his head. "I've seen trucks tear the gates right off.

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