Getting There: Death on the tracks clouded in mystery
Updated 9:44 pm, Sunday, September 24, 2017
There are more than 400 people killed by trains each year nationwide with most of the incidents occurring at grade-crossings.
The Federal Railroad Administration describes the average victim to be a 38-year-old white man who is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs with a median household income of $36,000. The FRA says 25 percent of the victims have not graduated from high school and 18 percent of the incidents are suicides.
There were six fatalities on the tracks in Connecticut last year, according to the FRA. Most of the incidents involved Amtrak trains, and a few were Metro-North.
The question is: were they preventable?
Join the conversation
Use #GettingThereCT to chime in on Facebook and Twitter.
It’s an issue many would rather not discuss. The railroads said publicizing suicides could provoke others to do the same. They referred me to a psychologist who has studied this issue. But even Dr. Scott Gabree, of the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, tried to dissuade me from writing about this.
The less people wanted to talk, the more interested I became.
But my focus was not to highlight the suicides, but to understand the incidents that occurred by accident or out of ignorance.
There were two such deaths in as many days last month. One incident occurred in Port Chester, N.Y., and the other was in Fairfield. The results of the investigations have not yet been released. The victims were described as “trespassers” who were on foot, not in cars, near the tracks.
There are no grade crossings on Metro-North’s main line between Grand Central and New Haven, though the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches have 53 such crossings, most equipped with gates and lights. In all, Connecticut has more than 600 grade crossings, most of them rarely used by trains.
But on Metro-North’s Harlem branch, a deadly collision in February 2015 killed a distracted driver who was stopped on the tracks and five train passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the auto driver, not the railroad, for the deaths.
After the crash in Valhalla, N.Y. — the deadliest in Metro-North history — the railroad started its own education effort: TRACKS, or Together Railroads and Communities Keeping Safe. Metro-North has also established a phone hotline to help prevent suicides.
Working with the nation’s railroads, the Washington-based Operation Lifesaver tries to educate about the dangers of getting in the way of trains. With slogans like “Train time is anytime” and “Stand clear, Stand here,” the PSAs warn people that trains can be deadly.
In each state, local coordinators for Operation Lifesaver use grants for public education, including posters, PSAs and brochures in English and Spanish. But the Connecticut Department of Transportation has not applied for any Operation Lifesaver money in the past two years.
The state DOT said it is spending $2 million a year to improve grade-crossing safety and the lapse in Operation Lifesaver grant requests was due to a change in personnel. Still, the state left a lot of needed money on the table.
Without education, the soon-to-open New Haven to Hartford commuter line will mean more trains and increased danger on that line’s 25 grade crossings. The message is simple: stay off the tracks.
Jim Cameron is a longtime commuter advocate based in Fairfield County. Contact him at CommuterActionGroup@