Freight trains are not known for stopping on a dime. But a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe train traveling through Bellingham Friday night came pretty darned close, while an area motorist has to be considered one of the luckiest people alive.
Not only did she escape with her life when her Mitsubishi Eclipse became disabled on the tracks as a train approached, but neither she nor her vehicle suffered a scratch.
The incident was just part of a busy weekend for BNSF in the region and serves as a reminder for drivers and pedestrians to be wary of crossings and stay clear of tracks.
At about 10:52 p.m., a car became disabled on the tracks near F Street, when the driver reportedly misjudged the crossing while attempting to turn onto Roeder Avenue, drove off the train bed at the intersection and became high centered on the tracks.
The driver saw a northbound train approaching and safely exited the car.
Fortunately, the train engineer also saw the car on the tracks and quickly applied the brakes, bringing the empty grain train to a halt just before it collided with the car. Eyewitness pictures taken by James Larrison show the train stopped "fractions of an inch" short of the vehicle.
"There was no contact," BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas said. "The track was inspected for safety and was reopened."
A tow truck was called to remove the car from the tracks, and according to Larrison. The driver fixed a flat tire and the woman was able to drive off.
Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy said there was no report on the incident and there was no record that the driver was cited. The railroad still is investigating the cause of the incident, Melonas said, but he added the automatic crossing signal at the intersection was functioning properly at the time.
Four trains were delayed while the car was removed from the track and the line was inspected, Melonas said, but considering what could have happened, that's a small price to pay.
Since Thursday, there was an abandoned car vs. train incident in Marysville, a teenage boy was killed near Toppenish Saturday morning after he was struck by a train, a pedestrian was hit and killed by a train Saturday night in Edmonds and a second person was struck while on the tracks near Toppenish Sunday, though Melonas said his injuries were not fatal. As if that weren't enough, Melonas said a boat also struck a railroad bridge over the weekend between Seattle and Everett, forcing that portion of the line to be shut down for inspection.
The fatalities were the sixth and seventh in Washington state this year, Melonas said. Last year there were 23 deaths from railway-related collisions in the state — the second highest number in the past 20 years.
"We want people to realize these trains can't stop that fast," said Melonas, who added that BNSF moved a greater volume of cargo in Washington state during the first quarter of 2018 than in any other quarter in the railroad's 170-year history. "Half of the crossings do not have automatic warning devices, so we ask drivers to stop, look and be perceptive."
At rail crossings that do have signals, it is illegal to drive around crossing gates or to ignore flashing warning lights.
As the weather gets warmer, Melonas said BNSF also sees an increase in the number of trespassing incidents along tracks, especially from Seattle to Bellingham, where the tracks often run near the waterfront.
"We're monitoring it and issuing trespassing citations," Melonas said. "The rail is there as a reminder — you shouldn't be there."