The Republican members of Congress on board the Amtrak train that struck a garbage truck in rural Crozet, Va, Wednesday can be forgiven for feeling rattled and unsettled. That’s particularly true for passengers like Sen. Jeff Flake, who just last June assisted victims of the GOP baseball practice shooting and found himself back in the thick of it. He and a number of medical professionals in the delegation had to spring into action to help the injured at the scene. Given that they were headed to a political strategy retreat at the Greenbrier resort, surely the last thing members, their staff and their families expected was to be in a rail crossing collision that left one person, a passenger in the truck, dead and others injured.
Unfortunately, U.S. rail crossing collisions — and fatalities — are not as uncommon as they likely should be. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 265 people lost their lives in highway-rail incidents in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That made it the worst year since 2008 and reflects a stubborn reality: While rail crossing crashes and related injuries and fatalities are much less common today than they were 30 years ago (in 1981, there were 728 deaths stemming from 9,461 incidents), the long-term pattern of decline since a peak in 1976 essentially leveled off 10 years ago, and the rate now may be picking back up.
That just isn’t a tragedy average Americans think about much, yet few vehicle collisions are more avoidable than those involving a train. While 265 deaths may seem small compared to 37,461 lives lost overall on the road in 2016, it’s more than 17 times what Great Britain, a country with far more rail travel despite its smaller population, has experienced in its most recent year. And that country’s 15 deaths was considered alarming to the British, given the 11 recorded the previous year.
Investigators have yet to offer much detail about how the truck in Virginia ended up on the tracks at a crossing where there were signal lights and a guard bar. But it’s not uncommon for drivers to either deliberately ignore warnings (in some cases, driving around guard bars as may have happened in this case) or simply be inattentive to the potential threat. Studies show crossing collisions are the fault of the vehicle driver about 94 percent of the time. Such was the case in the memorable 2013 Rosedale accident involving a CSX train and, coincidentally, a trash truck, that left one person seriously injured, derailed the train and caused hazardous materials to explode. That crossing was not gated (and most in Maryland are not), but two years ago, the FRA agreed to upgrade safety equipment at four Rosedale crossings in response to the crash.
Many times on this page we have decried the nation’s tolerance for vehicle crashes and fatalities which, in one year alone, outpace all the U.S. lives lost to terrorists worldwide since 9/11 by a factor of about 12, but what’s truly maddening about rail crossing deaths is that reducing them further doesn’t necessarily require some huge public investment or stringent “nanny state” regulations. One of the most effective strategies employed by the FRA and a nonprofit called Operation Lifesaver has simply been to educate the public about rail safety — a mission made all the more vital by the growing investment nationwide in light rail, passenger and freight rail in the 21st century.
There’s a bit more to it than running public service announcements, of course. Investing more in safety equipment and maintenance, making it “smarter” (able to communicate malfunctioning crossing mechanisms to train operators headed in their direction automatically, for example), enforcing safety laws more aggressively and, in some cases, simply pruning overgrown vegetation around crossings play a role as well. But here’s an idea: What if all members of Congress, including the Democrats, made mention of rail safety during their political campaigns this summer and fall? Maybe something as simple as a reminder than it takes a train a mile to stop or that walking on tracks can shorten your life (pedestrian fatalities are a problem, too). It wouldn’t cost a dime, people might listen given that many would be speaking from personal experience, and it might even make them seem a bit more human and caring than their abysmal poll numbers (a 20 percent approval rating, according to a January Gallup survey) suggest.
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