Thermal camera in Lumberton finds hundreds of rail trespassers, will help state reduce fatalities

North Carolina news

LUMBERTON, N.C. (WBTW) — A four-year study partially focused on Lumberton will help lead North Carolina’s efforts to reduce fatalities on railroad tracks.

The study used thermal cameras at trespassing hotspots to help create models that will be used throughout the state for education and prevention efforts.

The camera in Lumberton was placed where the Riverwalk Trail meets Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where trespassers cut across the tracks as a shortcut from the trail to a nearby neighborhood. 

“This kind of information helps us to maybe predict to other locations what potential traffic we can have trespassing across the railroad in different areas of the state,” said Jahmal Pullen, the engineering coordination and safety manager for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The study — a combined effort from NCDOT and the Institute of Transportation Research and Education — involved placing thermal cameras with motion sensors in Charlotte, Durham, Elon, Gastonia, Greensboro, Lumberton, Mebane, Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Salisbury, and Shelby in areas with preexisting trespassing paths. 

The resulting 58-page report breaks down trespassing incidents by hour, month, and season. 

While railroad fatalities have generally decreased since the 1970s, the number of trespassers killed has remained fairly consistent, ranging in age from the teens to the mid-twenties, according to Pullen.

There were 13 fatal collisions and 79 non-fatal ones in North Carolina in 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration. There were 23 fatal and 79 non-fatal crashes the previous year.

Since 1997, there have been 1,442 rail fatalities in North Carolina, including 30 fatalities in Robeson County, and two in Scotland County, according to the FRA.

The majority of fatal collisions include pedestrian trespassers, who are defined as anyone crossing tracks at anywhere other than a designated crossing.

The study found 875 trespassing incidents in Lumberton, with an average of 18 a day on days when the cameras were checked for activity. Of those incidents, 221 included groups of two or more people, 537 included people crossing the tracks, 233 included people who walked alongside the tracks, and 99 did both. About 10 percent of trespassers were riding or carrying a bike, and 11 of the incidents involved an arriving train.

The median time a trespasser spent on the tracks at the Lumberton site was six seconds, meaning that half of the people were on the rails for a longer time. Statewide, the median time a trespasser spent on the tracks was three seconds.

The study included 15,570 reported incidents of people crossing railroad tracks within view of cameras on days when they were checked. Results varied by location. In Elon, the study discovered that times where there were no trespassers coincided with days that Elon University students had off.

Pullen said the study showed there were a lot more trespassers than previously thought.

“If you’re not standing there and watching, there may be many, many people who might be crossing,” he said.

The new information, Pullen said, will go a long way toward prevention and education efforts. 

The study also found that there may be more illegal crossings in areas where businesses are on one side of the tracks, and homes on the other, or if there’s a bus stop in the area.

Pullen said the results will be used to help focus on areas that have been identified are having trespassing problems. It will also be used for creating predictive models.

“We really wanted to focus on the trespassing issue that we have,” Pullen said. 

He said trespassing isn’t an issue unique to North Carolina, but that the state wanted a fuller picture of how often it occurs. He said the study will influence how NCDOT reaches out to both municipalities and the public about how to stop trespassers.

Pullen said it’s important for the public to know that trains are different from other vehicles.

“It’s a situation where a train cannot stop like a car,” he said. “It takes a lot longer for a train to stop. They can’t move side-to-side. They are on that track and they want to go in that direction. It’s a situation where if a train interacts with a human, it often leads to a fatality, so we want to eliminate it if we can, but definitely reduce the amount of fatalities we have with people walking in the roadway right-of-way in our state.”

It’s hard to judge the speed of an oncoming train, he said, and people wrongly assume they’d be able to hear one coming.

“We have often seen where the wind is blowing, sometimes people might have some headphones in, and they don’t even hear the train, or they don’t notice the train is coming until the very last second,” he said. “That is something a lot of people don’t realize.”

NCDOT plans to continue using the cameras to gather more information about trespassing across the state.

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