Commentary: Always be aware when traveling over railroad tracks


Issue Date: October 19, 2016
By Susan Madigan
Susan Madigan
Farmers and farm employees use railroad crossings every day. Knowing the meanings of signs, signals and laws around railroad tracks improves safety at rail crossings.

With the numerous challenges facing the California agricultural community, it is understandable how rail crossing safety is not a subject of regular focus. However, raising rail safety awareness is a crucial component for California agricultural professionals and workers, to help them make good decisions when working or traveling near railroad tracks.

California has a heavy volume of both passenger and freight rail trains that travel through agricultural communities. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 244 people died and 967 were injured in 2015 as a result of grade crossing incidents across the United States. In addition, there were 2,059 collisions on and adjacent to railroad crossings.

Amtrak San Joaquins has partnered with California Operation Lifesaver to promote safe driving behavior for agricultural employees and increase awareness when traveling over or near railroad crossings. Our goal in sharing this rail safety message is to promote safety for all—and that includes our passengers and employees who work on the trains as well as farm employees and those in the surrounding communities who use these crossings.

Trains can operate at any time, day or night, so it is important always to be aware of your surroundings as you approach a railroad crossing.

Farmers and farm employees use railroad crossings to move from field to field on a daily basis. There are many times farmers or their employees will be operating loud machinery, which requires them to wear hearing protection. This could prevent them from hearing an approaching train, so extra caution must be used before crossing. It is imperative when approaching a railroad crossing to take the time to follow the correct procedures before crossing the tracks.

Ensuring that all of your employees are trained to know the meaning of all signs, signals and laws around railroad tracks—and the dangers of not obeying them—is key to helping them make good decisions that will help keep them safe.

In the case of an emergency, such as equipment or a vehicle stuck on the tracks, look for the blue Emergency Notification Sign, which has a dedicated, toll-free emergency number that goes directly to the railroad. This number will connect you to someone who can stop approaching trains and warn them of the danger on the tracks. This telephone number should also be used to report any other unsafe conditions on the railroad tracks. When reporting, make sure to include the unique identifier number on the sign for that crossing. If you cannot locate the sign, call 911.

Employees should be especially cautious at private-access farm-rail crossings that are not equipped with active warning devices, such as lights, bells, wayside horns or gates. They must first look in both directions to see if a train is coming, listen for the sound of an approaching train, and prepare to stop a safe distance from the tracks. They should not proceed across the tracks until the train has passed and the way is known to be clear—and that could include watching for a second train, if in multiple-track territory.

Remember: Trains always have the right of way.

A train's size and speed should never be underestimated; they are often closer and going faster than they appear to be. Trains cannot stop quickly. In fact, it can take up to a mile or more for a train to stop; that is the length of 18 football fields. By the time an engineer sees a vehicle or a person on the tracks, reacts and applies the brakes, it is often too late. He or she can only sound the warning horn, apply the emergency brakes and await the often-tragic results.

Many crashes occur at crossings as a result of impatience, inattentiveness or distraction. Here are key safety tips to help educate your employees or colleagues:

  • Crossing the tracks, other than at a grade crossing, is dangerous and illegal.
  • Heavy farm equipment takes longer to clear the tracks than a small motor vehicle, so don't cross if you see or hear any sign of a train.
  • Never ignore the flashing red lights at a crossing. It is illegal and dangerous to go around gates.
  • When stopped at a crossing, do not stop closer than 15 feet or farther than 50 feet from the nearest rail. Trains overhang the tracks by 3 feet on either side.
  • Turn off radios and air conditioners when approaching a railroad crossing; open your door or window to listen for a train. Proceed only when it is safe to do so.
  • Watch for hump crossing, be alert that your vehicle may get hung up on the tracks. In this case, don't cross the tracks; find another route.
  • If you get stuck on the tracks, get everyone out of your vehicle and far away from the tracks, then call the number on the blue Emergency Notification Sign.
  • Always expect a train. Trains can run on any track, at any time, in either direction. Remember: Whenever you see tracks, always think train!

For more information or to request an Operation Lifesaver rail safety presentation, visit www.caol.us or contact Nancy Sheehan, state coordinator, California Operation Lifesaver: caol@caol.us.

(Susan Madigan is the regulatory and compliance officer at the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.