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U.S. Rail Safety Awareness Programs Needed

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, and journalist with background experience in classical music performance and composition.


They're getting faster — but are you ready for them?

Fast, surface-routed public transportation services — light rail, regional passenger rail ("commuter rail"), and "bus rapid transit" buses that speed along special paveways and busways — are starting to appear and multiply in more and more American cities and metro areas. But typically the public — especially motorists — are unfamiliar with these new, faster transit services, especially when they're running in freight rail corridors or abandoned rail lines where the public has been accustomed to the slower (or non-existent) freight operations.

Amtrak's intercity trains likewise currently speed through the urban and suburban parts of many cities and towns. This in itself presents a safety problem, particularly since Amtrak trains typically run far less frequently than freights. Some of these services may become faster and more frequent in the future (if Amtrak survives efforts in Congress to slash and eliminate its funding).

Amtrak train approaches station in Austin, Texas.

Amtrak train approaches station in Austin, Texas.

Needed for public education campaign

Some of these issues have been examined in my earlier article, Faster U.S. surface transit raises need for rail safety awareness of public, which provides details and points out that much of the problem comes down to wildly dangerous behavior by motorists, such as making illegal turns, running red lights, racing approaching trains, weaving through lowered crossing gates, and even crashing through them on occasion. Pedestrians, too, have exhibited careless and even reckless behavior, such as walking on railroad tracks while listening to loud music or texting, and even lying down and falling asleep on tracks.

Certainly, nothing can cure appallingly mindless behavior by some individuals, but a case can be made that the public at large could be guided toward safer practices through better awareness. Rail transit, major railroad, and Amtrak professionals have continued to address safety with better technology and traffic management techniques. However, what seems particularly neglected and in need of more attention, is rail safety outreach programs aimed at more effectively inculcating general public awareness.

Just about every community in the USA is impacted by this issue, and addressing a solution is the responsibility of governments at all levels. A growing number of professionals are suggesting that an ongoing rail safety outreach program is a big part of this solution.

What would this outreach program involve? Definitely, it would include a vigorous public education campaign that emphasizes the potential hazards of dangerous behavior (like racing trains, violating warnings and gates, walking along tracks). Reinforcing proper procedures around railroads and safe practices near tracks would be a key focus, and utilizing the mass media — particularly radio and TV — would be crucial in these safety outreach campaigns.

Rail safety outreach components

Here are are some working principles and safety program components that have been found effective in a number of community rail safety outreach efforts:

• The community must be jolted into awareness that a variety of important new, faster public transport services are returning into the life of American cities — and this situation means everyone must start paying lots more attention and become much more cautious, especially near rail lines. Transportation agencies and providers at all levels need to make a huge effort to reinstate the awareness of rail safety rules and practices that were commonplace during the heyday of railroad and urban rail operations over half a century ago. As fast surface mass transportation makes a comeback, the safety awareness of the American public needs to make a comeback as well.

• The public must feel comfortable that any rail transit system, especially a brand-new one, provides as safe an operating environment as possible — in other words, that it's a “good neighbor” which will enhance their quality of life. This definitely requires a solid public perception that the system is safe for everyone, and especially kids and young people. Public confidence in the system's safety is also critical for smooth and convenient operation, and this can also help win community support for any future improvements or expansion.

Outreaching to public school students is an extremely effective means of communicating rail safety awareness and a general understanding of the array of issues involved. As several examples highlighted in the Faster U.S. surface transit article, cited above, have illustrated, children and young people are especially vulnerable to any dangers that may be presented by a new rail transit operation or facility (or even existing railway facilities) in the community environment. Rail safety outreach into public schools not only targets this critical audience of students, but has the potential of reaching a much broader audience of teachers, parents, and others in the community.

• It's especially important to continually seek out and explore innovative rail safety outreach techniques, not least because both the technology and the level of cultural awareness are constantly changing and advancing. Engaging a strong degree of interest, understanding, and commitment to safety among children and youths in general may be quite challenging – but innovative approaches and techniques, especially utilizing new technology, can be a very valuable component of good safety outreach.

• By collaborating with existing rail safety outreach efforts (such as the nationally renowned Operation Lifesaver program), local transportation safety officials can expand a powerful safety message to a much wider audience. Law enforcement and fire personnel, teachers, civic leaders, and other active members of a given community can carry the basic rail safety outreach campaign forward among the public as a whole.

Houston MetroRail running in surface alignment on Main St. in city's downtown.

Houston MetroRail running in surface alignment on Main St. in city's downtown.

Public involvement can "make changes happen"

Convincing transportation officials to rev up such an aggressive safety effort, and convincing politicians to allocate funding for it, can be a really daunting challenge. Within Congress, the record of political leaders at all levels, both conservative and liberal, for backing aggressive rail safety, is dismal. Even where adequate funding is proposed, it's consistently been slashed or eliminated.

Especially given the current political mindset obsessed with austerity, and downplaying the role of any government programs, the prospects for upgrading rail safety through any measures are poor. But, by making their voices heard, concerned and mobilized elements of the public have been known to make changes happen.

For more information on rail safety outreach, see:

Innovative Rail Safety Outreach for a New Rail Transit Service in Austin, Texas (paper)
Paper presented by Lyndon Henry et al. to 2008 American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Rail Conference (1-4 June 2008), San Francisco, California.

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Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, freelance investigative journalist and analyst, and transportation planning consultant. He produces the Writing Perspectives blog:

Originally published: 2012/03/22

© 2012 Lyndon Henry

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