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Amtrak takes step to be good neighbor

Amtrak is turning out to be a good neighbor after all.

The railroad announced plans Friday to install a good fence, not the shoddy chain-link joke in place now, along its Northeast Corridor tracks in Middle River.

It was along that 2-mile stretch, where ultra-quiet trains race by at speeds up to 125 mph, that 14-year-old Anna Marie Stickel was killed in January 2010 as she walked along the tracks and was hit from behind.

Certainly Anna didn't belong there. She was a trespasser. Her bad judgment led to tragedy — a fact that even her mother accepts.

But that section of tracks, which runs between residential neighborhoods, has been a magnet for children and adults for generations. People who now have children at Kenwood High School recall that they used the same shortcuts Anna used when they were in school. In any decent society, we protect children — which young teens are, even if they beg to differ — from their own underdeveloped judgment.

For decades, Amtrak has relied more on signs than security to keep unauthorized people off its tracks. Along part of the stretch in Middle River — right behind Rock-a-Billy's Bar & Grill on Old Orems Road — there is no fence at all between the drunks and the tracks. Just up the road there is a chain-link fence that people have been going over, under and through for decades.

But now Amtrak is planning to do something about the problem. It's going beyond what this column urged and is spending $3.1 million to rip out the chain-link fence entirely and replace it with a barrier it believes will deter even the most determined would-be trespasser.

The new 8-foot-high fence will run from Martin Boulevard to Stemmers Run Road, a section that includes the spot where Anna died.

Amtrak spokeswoman Danelle Hunter said the railroad is investing in an Impasse Anti-Scale Fence System, so named because it is designed to be difficult to get over. Hunter said it will be sunk into the ground so intruders can't get under it and will be made of sturdier material than chain link so an intruder can't get through it with bolt cutters.

I've seen the pictures, and it looks as strong as one could reasonably expect a fence to be.

In addition to building the fence, Amtrak said it will also upgrade the pedestrian underpass at Martin Boulevard. Currently, many residents avoid it because it's dark and rather creepy.

Hunter said it will take six months to erect the new fence."This fencing is very labor-intensive because of the high-security nature of it," she said. "It's not as easy as installing a chain link."

Amtrak won't get second-guessing here about the time it's taking. Better to get it right than do it fast.

Much of the credit for getting Amtrak's attention must go to two people. Tara Stickel, Anna's mother, made it her mission to push Amtrak to take steps to protect the children of her community from the hazard in their midst. And Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger provided the political clout.

Ruppersberger, a Democrat whose dealings with Amtrak go back to his years as Baltimore County executive, praised the railroad's action.

"They responded better to this than any other time we worked with them," he said.

Ruppersberger said persuading Amtrak took teamwork on the part of the entire Middle River community, but "the leader of the team was Mrs. Stickel."

On Friday, Tara Stickel said her daughter would be proud.

"It's bittersweet, obviously, but this is huge," she said. "It's going to make it so much harder for the kids to cut through."

And not just kids. The railroad industry across the country has a problem with trespassers — most of them adults. More than 100 are killed every year, and each time, railroad traffic halts for hours. Amtrak's doing what's right, but it's also doing what's smart for its customers.

More than that, Amtrak is setting an example. All over the country there are spots where railroad tracks divide communities. When that happens, it's human nature to seek a shortcut. The railroads can't fence every mile of track that runs through farms and wilderness. Nor can they deter people who are determined to commit suicide by train. But they can do more to eliminate these unauthorized crossings in residential areas and around schools

Let's hope the National Transportation Safety Board takes notice. For too long, that agency has shamefully ignored a hazard that has taken thousands of lives since its creation, writing off rail trespassing as a problem without a solution and its casualties as disposable people.

Now Amtrak, with no prodding from the board, is trying to make a difference in one Maryland community. If it's serious about its mission, the NTSB will study the effort and — if its works — demand that other railroads do the same.


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