Danger on the rails

This week, we mourn for the loss of Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, the 19-year-old college students who died on a downtown Ellicott City train trestle, victims of a coal train derailment late Monday night. Theirs were promising lives cut short in a truly senseless tragedy.

By all accounts, the Mount Hebron High School graduates were outstanding young women, studious, outgoing, personable, funny, attractive. That they were killed seconds after posting their thoughts and a photograph on Twitter while dangling their bare feet over Main Street in a last end-of-summer get-together as the fall term at college beckoned makes the awful incident seem all the more surreal. Might our teenage sons, daughters, nephews, grandchildren or cousins have done the same? Given the opportunity, might we have, too?

Much is not known about the circumstances of the accident, and many facts probably won't be revealed for weeks as investigators sift through the evidence. Might it have involved equipment failure, operator error, or a problem in the tracks? CSX has gotten a considerable amount of scrutiny for Maryland rail accidents in the past, including the 2001 Howard Street Tunnel fire.

Certainly, concerns about freight trains and hazardous cargo have been raised before. Recent coal train derailments have been an issue elsewhere (a Union Pacific derailment on an overpass near Chicago killed two people traveling in a car below last month). And the growing coal traffic at the Port of Baltimore means more such trains in Maryland.

What is certain is this: Railroad right-of-ways are dangerous places to be whether you are 9, 19 or 99 years old. Pedestrian trespass deaths are the leading cause of railroad injuries and fatalities nationwide and have been for years (having surpassed collisions involving motor vehicles at highway crossings, which remain the second leading cause since 1997).

Last year, there were 692 railroad-related fatalities nationwide. Of those, 411 were trespass deaths — nearly 60 percent — the equivalent of more than one for each day of the week, 52 weeks per year. While the rail industry has seen significant safety improvements over the last two decades, that is a number that appears stubbornly stuck in its tracks — there were 435 trespass deaths in 2010, 416 in 2009 and 457 in 2008.

There is any number of reasons for this, but the leading one appears to be a basic indifference of pedestrians toward the hazard. People will take shortcuts along tracks. They will hang out near them, use them as jogging routes, ride all-terrain vehicles along them and generally assume those lumbering freight engines and cars to be harmless.

The problem is, they are not harmless. Freight trains weighing up to 6,000 tons, the equivalent of moving horizontal skyscrapers, do not stop on a dime. People may assume they will hear one approaching, but that's not always the case — not, for example, if the victim is intoxicated (the average fatality involves someone who has been taking drugs or drinking, according to a 2008 Federal Railroad Administration study) or listening to an MP3 player or otherwise distracted.

Certainly, CSX and the other railroads have a responsibility to report "hot spots," sites that seem to attract trespassers and inform police and local authorities who can issue citations or warnings. Sometimes, fences will be erected as a result to reduce pedestrian access. But not everywhere; the vast freight line network is too large for that.

Ultimately, people must be better educated on the dangers of trains. Because no one in living memory had ever experienced a train derailment in Ellicott City did not mean that one might not happen. People would never dream of hanging out on the edges of Interstate 95 or crossing an airport runway for fear of the unexpected. Freight trains should be treated no differently.

Maryland ranks 13th among states in trespass-related train fatalities, likely a result of its high-density urban and suburban corridors. Since 2008, more than 40 trespassers have died in train accidents. Most, if not all, were avoidable.

All train tracks are private property and should be respected as such. Trains don't travel at fixed times or in one direction. They aren't necessarily as noisy as you may think. While it is often said that anyone can be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, staying off railroad tracks under any circumstances would surely improve a person's odds.

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