Regional efforts to educate people on train safety

According to Peter Pomonis, the state coordinator for North Dakota Operation Lifesaver, a division of the North Dakota Safety Council, “the weight of a train as opposed to a car is astronomically in favor of the train.”

Pomonis was speaking at the kick-off event for a special partnership between his organization and local and regional law enforcement to better educate people on train safety in this heavy-use Bakken region. The event was held at Behm’s Truck Stop on U.S. Highway 2 in Minot Monday afternoon.

“People need to be more aware of trains,” he said. “A lot of people don’t think about trains and when a train does strike a vehicle it’s potentially catastrophic. It’s much like a person stepping on a pop can. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

According to data sets provided by the Minot office of the Federal Railroad Administration, there have been five accidents with trains so far this year. Considering this year is halfway over it looks like it’s turning out to be an improvement over last year’s total of 27 accidents involving three deaths and 18 injuries in total statewide.

From 2009 to 2013 a total of 111 accidents between vehicles and trains were recorded in the state with 57 injuries and 12 deaths. Nine additional injuries and nine additional deaths also happened due to people trespassing on railroad property.

Both last year and 2012 were the record years for accidents involving trains and vehicles, although 2012 edged out 2013 with the same number of total accidents but one additional death but two fewer injuries. The data set goes back to 2009, when there was a relatively small 16 total accidents.

While the western half of the state had the most accidents involving rail in 2013 Cass County, where Fargo is, hosted the most of any one county with eight total accidents, two deaths and two injuries. Casselton, in Cass County, was the site of a major derailment and resulting inferno but no deaths were reported in connection.

Ward, McLean, Williams and Slope counties in the western half of the state each recorded one accident with Williams County recording one death but Golden Valley, Mountrail, Morton and McHenry Counties all reporting two or three accidents with no deaths.

“We have positive enforcement events this week in several towns. That’s where some of our volunteers will hand out information at high-traffic crossings in these towns and (law enforcement) will stop people when they see them doing the right thing, so it’s kind of an awareness effort that will stop people and thank them for doing the right thing,” Pomonis said.

One effort is a “Trooper on a Train” event that will happen today. At 10 a.m. an Amtrak officer will travel from Minot to Williston on a passenger train and a BNSF officer will take the same route.

The “positive enforcement” events, where drivers will be thanked for doing the right thing and information will be distributed, will take place at 9 a.m. in Beulah and 10 a.m. in Dickinson on Wednesday and 9 a.m. in Stanley and Minot and 10 a.m. in Springbrook on Thursday.

Classroom safety presentations will take place at various times and places through Thursday. More information is available on NDOL’s website (www.ndsc.org/OperationLifesaver).

“We’ll place a trooper on a train in Minot and they’ll be heading westbound toward the Williston area. While on the train, the trooper will be on the lookout for railroad violations at the crossings,” said Sgt. Tom Iverson, the safety and education officer for the North Dakota Highway Patrol. “If a trooper observes a crossing violation they will then radio out to troopers that we’ll have stationed along the track or in the vicinity and then they’ll be able to make a traffic stop on that vehicle. It works really well. You can get the trooper on the train and they can actually see the violation first hand.”

Iverson cited not yielding to a train, which “obviously can end up in some very deadly consequences,” and driving around stop arms as two common violations drivers make at railroad crossings. Pomponis cited distracted driving and outright complacency over the existence of trains as major culprits for the problems.

“We want everybody to get home safely for their families and I think that the goal with most companies is that going home at the end of our work day to our families,” said Cheri Bonebrake, the grade crossing safety regional manager for the Federal Railroad Administration. “Please look and listen at every highway railway crossing.”