For a railway engineer, seeing a car or a person ahead on the tracks is a real nightmare.
“It’s like a horror movie on TV, but it’s real,” said retired engineer Wayne Gentry. “You see it happening in front of you. You know you are going to hit them.
Gentry said a train traveling at 55 mph takes a mile or more to stop, and the only thing to do is apply “all the brakes you have” and then “watch the process”.
“As an engineer, I was devastated,” he said.
Over the course of his career, traveling daily between Louisville and Danville for Norfolk Southern, Gentry went through this again and again.
“I have been involved in 43 accidents and one suicide,” he said. “I had trouble sleeping.”
Now retired, Gentry, of Louisville, has dedicated himself to providing education to as many Kentuckians as possible about railroad safety. He is the Kentucky State Coordinator for the nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, a national organization supported by the railroad industry.
“The only thing that can keep people safe is awareness,” he said. “I do my best to give people information and hope they make better choices.”
A handful of train collisions have occurred in Kentucky recently, including one in Laurel County that killed a teenager, one in Lexington that seriously injured someone, and another in Barren County that killed a truck driver. Gentry said there are important steps everyone can take to make sure they stay safe around trains.
How common are rail incidents?
There were 763 deaths involving trains in the United States last year, including 10 in Kentucky, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. There were 4,597 reported injuries, including 31 in Kentucky.
Gentry said that over the past 50 years, the number of accidents involving trains has declined, primarily due to education, enforcement of crossing laws and technical improvements such as a better signaling and signage at level crossings.
But there are still hundreds of people injured and killed each year in incidents involving trains. The data indicates that fatalities involving pedestrians are more common than those involving motorists.
Between January and November 2021, Gentry said Federal Railroad Administration data indicates there were 38 train-to-car incidents at Kentucky crossings and one fatality.
During the same period, he said seven people had died in trespassing incidents involving trains in Kentucky, incidents in which people walked on or very near the tracks.
Since 2010, 113 people have died and 116 have been injured in trespassing incidents involving railroads in Kentucky. Ten of the deaths were in Fayette County, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Gentry said FRA data shows that during the same period, there were 54 crossing fatalities in Kentucky.
What happened in the last accidents in Kentucky?
In recent days, Kentucky has experienced several train collisions that have resulted in deaths and injuries.
In Lexington, a man told police he had been assaulted and was unconscious when he was hit by a train on Friday morning near North Broadway and Loudon Avenue. The man’s arm was severed, WKYT reported.
A 16-year-old boy died after being hit by a train in County Laurel about 7 miles south of London early Thursday. A 33-year-old man died on Wednesday after driving a Mack truck into the path of an oncoming train at a level crossing in Cave City, Barren County.
Last Saturday, the Hardin County Sheriff’s Office said, a tractor-trailer got stuck in the tracks at a railroad crossing in Glendale and was hit by a train. No one was injured, the sheriff’s office said.
And late last month, a Floyd County driver was sent to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after a collision involving a train.
What can I do to stay safe?
Operation Lifesaver says pedestrians and motorists should be careful when it comes to trains. Some of the best advice:
- “Always expect a train,” the organization’s website says, and know that they “may be closer and travel faster than they appear.” If you see a train, never try to beat it. The organization also notes that modern trains are much quieter than older models, making them harder to hear.
- Only cross tracks at designated crossings. Anywhere else is dangerous and illegal. Look both ways before trying to cross, as trains can go either way.
- “Always obey the warning signs and signals. Always look for a train before continuing. If the lights are flashing or the gates are down, do not cross.
- Don’t get stuck on the rails. Make sure there is space to cross completely to the other side before you start crossing the train tracks.
- “The trains overhang the tracks. When driving, leave at least 15 feet between the front and rear of your vehicle and the nearest rail. Avoid changing gears while crossing.
- “If your vehicle gets stuck or stalls at a crossing, immediately get everyone out and away, even if you don’t see a train. Call the number on the blue and white Emergency Notification System panel and share the crossing ID number with the dispatcher. No sign? Dial 911.”
- Do not walk on the rails and keep a good distance from them. According to Operation Lifesaver, trains can overhang the tracks by three feet or more on either side, meaning pedestrians have to stay farther than that.
- It is illegal and dangerous to shoot photos and videos on tracks.
- People on bicycles or in wheelchairs or strollers should cross at a 90 degree angle, as the wheels can get stuck.
Gentry said one of his top tips will be printed on the bottom of a new Kentucky specialty license plate supporting railroad safety: “See tracks? Think train.
The Federal Railroad Administration says suicides are among the most common causes of railroad-related deaths, and since 2011 it has tracked and researched strategies to prevent them.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is open 24/7 and can be contacted by calling 988.
You want to know more ?
Operation Lifesaver and the Federal Railroad Administration offer educational materials and resources on their websites.
If you have a device with Amazon’s Alexa on it, Gentry said you can also say “Alexa, open the train safety quiz,” and your Alexa device will start a quiz.
He said his daughter-in-law wrote the program for him because she knew how important the issue was to him.
Gentry said his organization has volunteers across the state who give presentations to school bus drivers, new drivers, school kids and other groups about trail safety.
His final word on train safety could apply to many life situations: “Always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t be so preoccupied with what else you’re doing.
This story was originally published July 18, 2022 06:00.