Safety train hits Macon to promote better habits

wcrenshaw@macon.comJune 4, 2014 

A train that rolled through Macon on Wednesday likely turned some heads, and the people operating it hoped it would also turn around some bad driving habits.

The train, which included two 1949 passenger cars, was Norfolk Southern’s Peach State Whistle-Stop Safety Train. In partnership with Operation Lifesaver, the train is making a trek across Georgia to promote railroad crossing safety.

Last year, 13 people died and 63 were injured in 96 vehicle-train collisions in Georgia, according to Operation Lifesaver. The number of fatalities is the fifth highest in the nation, and last year’s numbers marked an 85 percent increase from 2012. Georgia has historically ranked high because it has about 8,000 railroad crossings, the seventh highest in the nation.

The passenger cars on the safety train Wednesday featured monitors showing a live feed from the front of the train. That was to give riders and idea of what the engineer sees. (There weren’t any transgressions on Wednesday’s trip from Macon to Barnesville.)

However, a video from Tuesday’s trip from Valdosta to Warner Robins showed a motorist turning around just as the train approached the track. The motorist came close to being in the train’s path.

Thomas Sims, the engineer on Wednesday’s trip said he has close calls on an almost daily basis.

“It really is a never-ending battle,” he said. “You never win when you try to beat a train over a crossing.”

Trying to beat the train is one of the most common causes of vehicle-train collisions, along with people ignoring crossing signals and even going around gates.

John Cross, a truck driving instructor and Operation Lifesaver volunteer, became interested in railroad crossing safety after seeing the statistics on the number of accidents involving big rigs and trains.

Cross drove a truck for 41 years and has more than 3 million accident-free miles. The key to railroad crossing safety, he said, is basically the same as driving safely anywhere.

“Attentiveness and being aware of your surroundings at all times,” he said. “Every moment that you drive, the situation can change. So if you are not attentive to that, you get caught on the blind side.”

Georgia State Trooper Walter Christian, who works from the Griffin post, was among the riders on Wednesday’s trip. Christian said he has been to one train-vehicle accident in which a motorist tried to go around a gate but misjudged the speed of the train and was hit. The driver escaped with only minor injuries.

“He was very lucky,” Christian said.

The biggest problem he sees at railroad crossings, he said, is probably the same thing that leads people to speed and commit most other traffic violations.

“People are so busy these days. They don’t have the patience,” he said. “They don’t feel the need to wait on a train to pass.”

There actually were more train fatalities in Georgia last year involving pedestrians than vehicles. There were 15 pedestrian fatalities, most related to trespassing.

No one is ever allowed to walk on a train track other than at designated crossings, yet people commonly do.

These days more people are wearing ear buds and listening to music that drowns out the sound of an oncoming train.

“It’s not a place to play,” said Melvin Crawley, Norfolk Southern’s superintendent over Georgia and Florida. “We have a lot of trespassers that are injured every year.”

He said Norfolk Southern has an initiative to try to eliminate crossings wherever possible by bridging.

Passengers on the trip included local officials, law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel, school bus drivers and anyone else with a vested interest in railroad safety. Officials on the trip included Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and state Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella.

The train also included a museum car with a simulator that allowed people the experience of operating a train.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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