Our Voice: Expect train at any time along railroad tracks

October 30, 2013 

In a community surrounded by potential hazards, we often become so accustomed to certain everyday dangers that we diminish the threat in our minds, and become lackadaisical about the risks.

Most of us come across rivers, roads and railroads on a daily basis in the Tri-Cities, and we forget just how deadly they can be when not given the necessary respect. They become a part of the landscape.

The terrible tale of a Kennewick couple hit by a train last week is a sad reminder that no matter how tempting, it is never safe to walk near railroad tracks.

"Trains can move on any track, at any time, in any direction."

It is a mantra repeated over and over again by longtime BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas.

In just a little more than one week this month, five people in Washington were hit by trains. Three of them were killed, including Melinda Williams, a 50-year-old mother and grandmother from Kennewick who went out for a stroll with her boyfriend Sam Frank and their dog Star on a beautiful fall afternoon.

Unfortunately, the route the couple chose for that walk was along the railroad tracks.

"We want the public to be aware that trains can move on any track, at any time, in any direction."

The fatal decision that resulted in Williams' death also almost severed Frank's arm. He is recovering in a Seattle hospital.

Most of us would think we could hear a train coming if we were walking along railroad tracks. We would be wrong. Though Frank and Williams' family have said they were hard of hearing, trains can seemingly sneak up on anyone. Despite their lumbering appearance, trains move quickly. By the time you see it, it could be too late.

"Trains can move on any track, at any time, in any direction."

The state Department of Transportation says it is impossible to judge the speed of a train by looking at it. The size of a train makes it appear to be moving slower than it actually is, creating an illusion that has trapped many a driver who thought he could beat a train at a crossing.

Almost 95 percent of railroad fatalities involve motorists at grade crossings -- where a rail line and a roadway (or pathway) cross one another at the same level -- or people who have trespassed on railroad property, according to the WSDOT website.

Dozens of trains travel through the Tri-Cities each day, and the proposal for coal export to Asia could add even more train traffic through our community.

BNSF and Union Pacific have lines here. Rail is an important part of our nation's transportation infrastructure and our local economy. Rail may seemed old-fashioned but it is economical and here to stay.

"Trains can move on any track, at any time, in any direction."

Railroad tracks are not a shortcut or a convenient path to a destination for pedestrians. Railroad tracks are not a place to stop and take a break, even when there's no train on the horizon. Railroad tracks are private property and anyone walking the tracks is trespassing. It was disheartening to learn, during the coverage of Williams' death, that some parents approve of their children's use of railroad tracks as a suitable path to school.

That is not the appropriate lesson. Even those who think they have a train schedule memorized could be surprised by changes caused by repairs and construction. It is never safe.

It takes a 150-car freight train traveling 50 mph a mile and a half to come to a stop after applying the emergency brake.

Think about that next time you're tempted to take to the tracks.

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