Activists hope new NCDOT report encourages safety around railroad tracks

North Carolina news

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WJZY) – A four-year study by the North Carolina Department of Transportation is shedding light on just how dangerous railroad tracks can be. 

“It didn’t keep people off the tracks, but it did keep trains from running [over] them and that’s what that study, research project showed,” Margaret Cannell said.  

Cannell works with Operation Lifesaver and was shocked to learn about the number of people who could have potentially been killed. 

Unfortunately, far too often, people get complacent around railroad tracks, making it a recipe for harm or disaster. 

Each year, thousands try to beat the train in cars and on foot. 

The new figures published in the NCDOT report used data collected from thermal cameras placed along busy tracks in the Tar Heel state. 

“We thought if we were able to set up a static camera and record 24 hours a day then we might be able to get a better understanding of how many people might cross the track or walk along the track,” Cannell said.  

Rail Division Manager Jahmal Pullen says the findings are staggering. The latest figures from operation lifesaver recorded 22 deaths due to trespassing in 2019.  

From 2017 to 2020, cameras caught more than 15,000 people on the tracks. Many of the close calls happened in the Salisbury area and in one case, right in front of our cameras. 

“I’m of the opinion its common sense, stay away from railroad tracks, but common sense isn’t a flower that grows in everyone’s garden,” Cannell said.  

And the warnings don’t end there. Cannell said that sometimes people walking along the tracks don’t see or hear the trains until it’s too late. 

“There is a force of physics–objects that are really large look like they’re standing still. When as matter of fact they are coming towards you rapidly,” she said. “They see that a train is approaching but they think it’s a lot further away than it is, or that it’s going much slower than it is. That’s when they’ll take the chance to run across or drive across in their vehicle; and that’s when incidents occur.”  

It’s important to realize most trains take a mile or more to stop, so the sooner the railroad knows there’s a problem, the better.  

That’s why you’ll find emergency notification alert signs on a railroad crossing or along the track that has a unique code to let a dispatcher know exactly where you are. 

They can call the engineer in an approaching locomotive, which can take as little as 15 seconds. If you call 911, that can actually cost valuable time stopping an approaching train. 

Cannell sees it as another chance to educate the public and save a life.

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