In 2006, 14-year old Kristen Bowen was killed on the train tracks near her house in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park. She was using a well-worn shortcut across the tracks that cut her residential neighborhood off from the school and the park they used. Four years after Kristen’s death, her twin sister committed suicide by stepping in front of a train near where Kristen was struck. Those tracks are covered with balloon memorials and crosses, commemorating those who have died.
The Federal Railroad Administration estimates that 500 people die every year walking on railroad tracks [PDF]. But who bears the responsibility of preventing these deaths? Was it Kristen’s responsibility to avoid trespassing where freight trains roar past? Her town’s responsibility to erect a fence before being spurred on by her death? Should planners have recognized that it’s human nature for people to take a calculated risk to reach the amenities they used? Or was it the railroads’ responsibility to identify where these deaths happen and try to mitigate the risk?
A recent series by reporter Todd Frankel at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch makes clear that the responsibility is shared. But he also points a finger at the railroads, which have been obstructionist as others try to address the issue:
A few years ago, when the [Federal Railroad Administration] tried to get a better sense of who was walking on the tracks — by looking at trespassing cases that didn’t end in a casualty — regulators asked the railroads for help. They wanted the railroads’ internal trespassing reports. The railroads refused.
The agency recently was forced to concede defeat, noting that it “failed to garner the necessary support from the rail industry to conduct the study.”
Then there was the issue of where the casualties occurred.
For years, the agency required railroads to report only the county of a trespassing death or injury. Not the city. Not the closest milepost on the railroad system. Having so few details made it hard to identify hot spots for trespassing, said Ron Ries, director of the agency’s Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Division.
We reported in the spring that FRA guidance on pedestrian safety at railroad tracks focused only on approved crossings, ignoring the risks of so-called “trespassing” that occurs outside of those areas.
Only in the last year did federal law require railroads to provide GPS coordinates of the crashes. Before that, their crash reports only listed the county where the crash happened, making it impossible to identify where these crashes are clustered. Now, with better information, some danger “hotspots” became apparent.