We tend to think of railroads as a travel method of a bygone era.
In reality, not only are Alabama railroad crossing injuries and deaths an ongoing risk, they are a rising one.
According to new data from the Federal Railroad Administration, the number of pedestrians fatally struck by trains nationwide spiked by more than 25 percent in the first five months of this year. The figures indicate that while there were 158 railroad pedestrian deaths from January through May of 2012, there were 199 during the same time frame this year.
Since May, there have been 356 pedestrians injured in train accidents nationwide, compared to 344 from May through September last year.
Technically, a person walking on railroad tracks is considered to be trespassing. However, railroad tracks frequently cut through dense neighborhoods and offer up short cuts that many people use regularly. More people die walking on railroad tracks each year than do in railroad crossings.
However, that doesn’t mean railroad crossing accidents don’t continue to be a problem, especially as many locations have failed to update their railroad crossing guards and other safety features.
Just recently in Mobile, a 30-car train collided with a crossing dump truck, loaded with gravel. The dump truck driver was transported to the hospital with serious injuries. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
Through July this year in Alabama, the FRA reports there have been 27 railroad accidents, compared to 23 in 2012. Totals for the last three years are: 65 in 2010, 29 in 2011 and 38 in 2012. That represents a 31 percent increase from 2011 to 2012 and a 17 percent increase so far this year.
Jefferson County is a hot spot for railroad collisions. Through July of this year, 12 of those 27 (44 percent) of the state’s total railroad accidents have been in Jefferson County. That’s a 50 percent spike from the figures we saw this time last year, the FRA reports.
There are 20 railroad crossings in Birmingham alone.
One of the top reasons for railroad crashes in Alabama is failure to comply with restricted speed. Another is compound fissures, which are a type of railroad deficiency.
Not all incidents result in injuries, but those that do tend to be catastrophic. Part of the problem is that trains, because they are so large, appear to be moving slower than they actually are. The top speed for freight trains is 60 miles-an-hour, while passenger trains are allowed to travel up to 80 miles-per-hour.
But even at lower speeds, the force can be tremendous. Consider that a single locomotive, traveling at about 35 mph and weighing approximately 430,000 pounds has the capability to strike a vehicle with 885,000 tons of force.
To put that into perspective: For a car to inflict that same level of force, it would have to be traveling at 4,200 mph.
Another one of the major problems with railroad crossings, though, is that many are not properly marked. While about half of all public railroad crossings are marked by electronic signals, many railroad crossings don’t have any markings.
The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) has set aside highway improvement project funding with intentions to eliminate railway crossing hazards.
Railroad pedestrian accidents on the rise in 2013, Aug. 7, 2013, By David Carson and Todd C. Frankel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch