Vintage passenger train promotes safety |

Vintage passenger train promotes safety

Kati O'Hare
Montrose Daily Press
Vail, CO Colorado
AP/Montrose Daily Press, Joel BlockerCounty and city employees, along with emergency responders, exit Union Pacific vintage passenger cars in Delta, after a round trip to Paonia.

MONTROSE, Colorado ” Every two hours in the United States, a vehicle or pedestrian is struck by a train.

“People at a crossing have a choice. I don’t,” said engineer Steve Wareham, coordinator for Colorado Operation Lifesaver on the Western Slope.

Last month, a vintage Union Pacific passenger train journeyed through the Western Slope as part of a campaign to bring safety and awareness to the public and their emergency responders.

The 1950s vintage train took off from Delta and traveled the slow-track line to Paonia and back. While the passengers learned about safety and enjoyed an almost-extinct method of traveling, police officers were busy outside.

Between 2:30 and 5 p.m. on that recent Friday, a handful of drivers received railroad crossing citations. Some violators ignored the crossing signs, while others tried to beat the train by driving around the crossing gate. Everyone was putting themselves in danger, Wareham said.

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“It’s mainly the public’s bad driving habits,” said Gary Mehalic, engineer and Lifesaver presenter. “The train will always win.”

Nearly 50 percent of vehicle/train collisions occur at crossings with active warning devices, such as gates, lights and bells, according to Operation Lifesaver statistics.

Dave Schoening, a 35-year engineer with Union Pacific, has seen more accidents than he would like to remember. As an engineer, it is his job to control the train. By federal law, he must blow his horn every 15 to 20 seconds before public railroad crossings. Engineers don’t have to blow their horns at private crossings. Schoening said it’s important for drivers to pay attention at all crossings, as there may be no warning that a train is just around the corner.

Schoening and conductor Dave Joyce are on constant alert.

“We’re always talking safety,” Schoening said. “In this job, one mistake is your last.”

Many of the devastating mistakes are not those of engineers or conductors, but of drivers. In 2007, Union Pacific reported 540 highway-rail incidents, with 77 fatalities, according to the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis.

When a train is traveling 40 miles an hour, it can take almost a mile to stop, Schoening said. There is nothing he can do when a vehicle or pedestrian presents itself on the track.

And when accidents happen, they aren’t just devastating to the victim.

“Locomotive crews are the silent victims,” Wareham said. “They make eye contact with the victims in 80 percent of the cases.”

Operation Lifesaver also stresses the dangers of trespassing. Railroad tracks, trestles, yards and equipment are all private property, so walking or playing on them is illegal and subject to arrest and fines.

In Union Pacific incidents, highway-rail and trespassing accounted for more than 96 percent of fatalities in 2007, according to the FRA.

With modern technology, trains are being equipped with cameras. They are used to investigate derailments and wrecks and spot trespassers, Mehalic said.

This is the second year the program has used the vintage Union Pacific train to educate area residents on safety. Wareham said he hopes it will become an annual event.

Operation Lifesaver is a nonprofit, international public education program designed to eliminate collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail intersections and on railroad rights of way, according to its Web site.

The program started in 1972 when several groups, including Union Pacific, decided they needed to fight the growing number of railroad accidents. In the first year of the program, crossing fatalities dropped by 43 percent.

Colorado Operation Lifesaver:

Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis:

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