Train Safety for Drivers and Riders
How to avoid a deadly collision, and what to do if your train crashes
When trains and cars collide, the results are tragic. The recent collision of a Metro-North Railroad train with an SUV on the tracks north of New York City brought train safety into the spotlight once again. Six people, including the SUV driver, died.
While such train-vehicle collisions have declined, from about 12,000 per year in the early 1970's to about 2,000 in 2013, the preliminary figures for 2014 show a slight increase, according to Libby Rector Snipe, a spokesperson for Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rail safety.
Whether you’re a driver or a train passenger, following some commonsense safety measures that may be new to you can reduce the risk of catastrophe, say Rector Snipe and Scott Sauer, chief safety officer for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
If you drive near tracks:
- Don't try to beat the train, Rector Snipe says. A train travelling 55 miles per hour takes about a mile to stop. "The train cannot stop quickly, even if the engineer sees you," she says. "When the gates are down and the lights are flashing, that is basically the same as saying the road is closed," Sauer says. "Every vehicle and pedestrian must yield to the train, and this includes emergency vehicles."
- Never drive around the lowered gate, even if you think it's not working, Rector Snipe says. "It's illegal and it can be deadly." If you think it isn't working correctly, call the rail operator and report the problem. "There is a telephone number [of the rail operator] posted at every grade crossing," Sauer says. "It could be by the gate or on a piece of equipment. It will be somewhere in plain view."
- Don't assume the train will stop even if there is a rail station next to the crossing. It may not.
- If your vehicle gets stuck on the tracks, act fast, Sauer says. "You want to get everyone out of the vehicle and run at a 45-degree angle, away from the tracks and toward the direction the train is coming," he says. This will protect you from most of the flying debris if the train and vehicle crash, he says.
- If your vehicle is stuck on the tracks and a train is not in view, get everyone out safely and then call the toll-free number listed by the gate, Sauer says. The rail operator may be able to divert the train. If you can't find the number, call 9-1-1, he says, and the police can get in touch with the rail operator.
- If you drive across tracks and the gate comes down, keep driving if you can, Sauer says. "The gates are designed to break off," he says. "They will literally break off and fall to the ground." There will likely be damage to your vehicle, but not as much as a collision with a train.
If you are a train rider:
- On the train platform, stand at least three feet back from the tracks.
- As soon as you sit down, count the seats from you to the closest emergency exit window. This will be valuable information if the train crashes and the car fills with smoke.
- If the train problem is affecting your car, first try to go to the next car.
- If the train has crashed and the door is still shut, look for the emergency sign and the emergency panel. Read instructions on how to open the panel and pull the red handle, which releases the door.
- Another escape option is to use the emergency exit window. Follow instructions on how to open it first. The drop the to the ground is seven or eight feet, so be prepared to scale down the side instead of jumping if possible.
- If the car fills with smoke, drop to the floor so you can breathe better and crawl out.
- Once out of the train, be aware that there might be another train track parallel to yours. Walk over it carefully — and make sure there’s no train coming first.
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