About every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train. That statistic became a reality last summer when 21-year-old Nicholas Phillipp lost his life on the railroad tracks in Eden Valley Aug. 11, 2012.
Phillipp and three others were playing “chicken” on the tracks, laying down and then suddenly getting up and running. The three others ran to safety. So did Phillipp, until he decided to run to the other side of the tracks.
He nearly made it to join his friends on the other side. But, with trains, “nearly” can be fatal.
Phillippi was struck and killed by a Canadian Pacific train heading westbound. It was about 3:30 a.m.
This is an example of a tragedy that was entirely preventable, say Holly Schafer and Brenda Rivera. The two came to Eden Valley-
Watkins High School and Elementary School as part of Operation Lifesaver to make four presentations for students on railroad safety because no one ever wants such a tragedy to happen again.
Schafer is Operation Lifesaver Coordinator, and she works for Twin Cities Western Railroad. Rivera is an employee of Canadian Pacific Railroad; she is on-call to respond to railroad accidents one week out of six throughout the year.
Why the presentation
Eden Valley Police Chief Ernie Junker was one of the first on the scene at the accident. Along with other law enforcement, including the CP Rail Police, he viewed the on-train video of the Aug. 11 incident. Junker knew Phillipp, and he knew his family.
Junker does not want to have to identify another train accident victim. He does not want to have to notify another family that someone has died needlessly.
Eden Valley mayor Pete Korman has been a train fan all of his life. He appreciates the power of trains, and the need to respect that power. When he was in seventh grade, a friend’s brother was killed in the railroad crossing on Highway 22 in Eden Valley. He doesn’t want to lose another community member, especially someone so young, in a preventable tragedy.
Junker and Korman set out last summer to present railroad safety to students in the Eden Valley-Watkins schools, to help make sure a similar tragedy never happens again. It took nearly a year to make it happen.
The facts are clear
Trains remain the safest and most economical means to transport a variety of goods. It often is the preferred means for many of the commodities shipped across the United States.
The rates of collisions, injuries and fatalities in train incidents have declined by 83 percent since 1972. The 271 fatalities last year in the United States are 271 too many. According to Operation Lifesaver, all accidents are preventable. Eight of those fatalities last year were in Minnesota, ranking ninth in the country.
In our area, trains usually travel at 40-50 miles an hour.
Trains can pass through at any time of day or night, and in any direction.
Trains can’t swerve to avoid impacting something that shouldn’t be on the tracks. They follow the tracks. They can’t stop, and they can’t get out of your way.
Today, it takes an average train nearly a mile to come to a stop. By the time a conductor sees you on the tracks, there’s not a thing he or she can do to prevent a collision.
By comparison, traveling at 55 m.p.h., a car needs about 200 feet to come to a stop; a school bus, about 230 feet; a loaded semi-trailer truck, about 300 feet (the length of a football field). It takes a loaded train more than 5,280 feet (more than a mile) to come to a stop from a speed of 55 m.p.h. It is impossible for anyone to see far enough ahead on train tracks to stop in time to avoid a collision.
Trains stop by braking from the end of the train forward, one car at a time. Just applying the air brakes to each car takes time. The train literally pulls to a stop from the end of the train; the locomotive doesn’t stop the train.
The weight ratio of a train to an average car is 4000:1; the train is 4,000 times heaver than a car. This same ratio is the weight of a car to a full pop can. A train can crush a car as easily as a car can crush a pop can. According to Schafer, the damage to the train after hitting the SUV will be only about $100. Don’t be that crushed pop can. (Continuing the same weight example, a human outside of a vehicle has as much chance as a mosquito against a windshield – none.)
If your car becomes stuck on railroad tracks, get out. Your car can be replaced; you cannot.
On average, a train overhangs the tracks by at least three feet, up to 12-15 feet.
All property wthin 50 feet on either side of railroad tracks is railroad property, private property. It is trespassing to be within 50 feet of railroad tracks except at marked intersections. This private property right of way includes trestles and tracks thought to be abandoned or inactive.
Unlike in the movies, you cannot feel the tracks to sense an oncoming train. By the time you see or hear a train coming, it may be too late to safely get out of its way.
Also, unlike the movies, lying flat on the tracks as a train passes over you is NEVER safe. The clearance under a train is not enough for a person, and there are often chains, cables, air hoses, and other railcar parts that hang below and between railroad cars.
Don’t ever jump onto train cars, moving or not. Neither the roofs of cars nor the ladders on the sides of cars are meant for anyone but railroad professionals. It may look fun in the movies; in real life, people are killed or maimed.
Never assume that a stopped train is truly stopped. Trains can move back and forth several times after coming to a stop; that’s called switching, making sure the cars are in the right order. They also can start up abruptly.
Taking a shortcut under a train or between stopped cars is never safe. Couplers between trains can be in constant motion back and forth. Even trained railroad workers lose their life or limbs to accidents between cars.
More incidents occur at crossings with flashing lights or cross arms than at passive crossings. Never go around railroad stop arms when they are down. Even if you think they are malfunctioning. Unless directed through an intersection by a railroad employee or by law enforcement (who will have consulted with the railroad first), NEVER drive through a railroad intersection where the cross arms are down or lights are flashing, even if others are doing it.
Don’t pass, shift or stop on train tracks. If there’s traffic, don’t drive onto the tracks until you can drive through to the other side immediately.
Avoid distractions while driving. Some train accidents are caused when vehicles hit the side of trains in marked crossings with flashing lights and cross arms. Last winter, a snowmobile in the city of Dassel lost control next to a moving train; it was pulled under the train and the driver was killed. The train will always win.
Many railroad fatalities occur when people walk along railroad tracks listening to music through ear phones. They never heard it coming. Modern trains are much quieter today, and you can’t count on hearing one coming even without the added distraction of music.
Photographing on train tracks or trestles is not only illegal trespassing, it’s very dangerous. A train could come from either direction, and you probably won’t hear or feel it until it’s too late.
Don’t put foreign objects on train tracks. Not only could a train derail because of it, but you could lose an arm.
Always use a marked crossing to cross railroad tracks. It’s the only safe place to cross; anywhere else is trespassing.
An average of 28 trains a day travel through our communities along the CP Rail line. This will increase as more and more oil is transported from the Dakota fields to the East coast.
“Stay off! Stay away! Stay alive!”
What you can do
Obey the law and rights of way. Don’t trespass on tracks or within 50 feet on either side of tracks. This alone will eliminate most accidents on railroad tracks.
Set a good example for others, especially your children. Teach them to obey the laws, and to respect the power of trains.
We have devoted this much space to the story because (a) not all EV-W students saw the presentation; both sixth-graders and seniors were gone from school that day; (b) this message is important to all of us, of all ages; and (c) all of us in central Minnesota live in close proximity to railroad tracks; they are an ever-present part of our lives.
Canadian Pacific Railroad links our communities with much of North America. While rail transport is safe and economical, accidents happen when people ignore safety rules and trespassing laws. Last summer, Nicholas Phillipp lost his life in a game of “chicken” with the train. All hope that there never is another needless tragedy. Staff photo by Jean Doran Matua.