Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Prototype Railroading: More on Safety
Most people at most railroads do not have much of a problem with people taking pictures of trains and other railroad equipment. As a railroader, it can be a little weird to have someone taking pictures or a video of me, while I work, but I usually try to ignore it and go about my work. Of course, if the railroad requires any sort of photo permit, or something similar, it is important to make sure that you have that before going out to take pictures. If not, you may have a bit of trouble should a railroad employee or police officer decide to ask what you are up to. When taking pictures or other recordings of trains and other railroad equipment, be aware of your surroundings. Always be alert to moving rail equipment, but also be alert to any highway traffic that may be nearby. This is especially important around grade crossings or station parking lots. When on railroad property, be sure to stay in areas authorized for use by the public, such as station platforms, parking lots, designated walkways, and crossings. Be sure to stay clear of the tracks at all times, in case of any unexpected movement, even if there is a grade crossing there.
If you chose to photograph or record trains around grade crossings, be aware of any road traffic. Keep a close watch on the road, and make sure you are aware of any and all oncoming traffic. Stay behind the gates, if the crossing is so equipped, and be alert for any rail movement as well. Stay clear of the tracks, and if you do need to cross, do so at the designated crossing, and do not stop fouling the tracks for any reason. When the crossing is occupied with a train, stay behind any warning devices, such as gates and lights, until the crossing is clear and the warning devices are no longer active. In a situation where there are multiple tracks, it is very important to stay behind gates or lights until they deactivate, even if it seems to take a long time. If they do not deactivate right away, it is likely that there is another train on another track, and ignoring the lights could lead to tragic consequences. If a train stops in the crossing, never try to cross over or under the train, even if it has been stopped for several minutes. The train can start moving and if you are on or under it, it could be the last thing you see. Even climbing on the train can be dangerous, because as it starts moving, all the slack must be pulled out of the couplers. If you are back more than a few cars, this means that the car will very suddenly and violently lurch forward, likely throwing you off of it. If you are in a vehicle, never drive around lowered crossing gates or run through activated warning lights, even if the track appears to be clear.
If you want to photograph the activities in yards and industries that railroads serve, remember that railroad property is private property, and you must be authorized before being on the property. Often there are public locations nearby that offer a good view, without compromising safety or requiring trespassing. Many yards have roads that run nearby, overpasses, or other public property surrounding them. Smaller yards may even have road or foot crossings. Some yards have private property around them, but if the railroad will not let you on their property to take pictures, you might consider asking a neighbor who has a good vantage point, if they would mind you taking photos from their property. This may require talking to a complete stranger, but most people are reasonable and will honor a reasonable request. If you do manage to obtain permission to be on railroad property, be sure to wear all the required personal protective equipment, and adhere to all safety rules outlined by the railroad. Should you get permission, it may also be a good idea to get it in writing, just in case anyone questions your presence.
Earlier I mentioned an incident in Forsyth. For those of you who are dying from curiosity, I'll elaborate. Those of you that pass out at the mere thought of blood, now would be a good time to stop reading. In Forsyth, there are two crossings. One is at the east switch, and one in close to the depot. Immediately west of the east crossing is CTC East Forsyth. There is one switch there controller by the dispatcher, which lines either down the main or into the yard. There is also one switch that is hand lined, for either track one or track two. Immediately west of the downtown crossing, by the depot, is where the yard widens out. If I had to guess, I would say that there is about 9,000 feet between the downtown crossing and West Forsyth. When trains come into Forsyth for a new crew, they are stopped between the west switch and the downtown crossing, on either the main, track one, or track two. Trains departing eastbound from one or two tracks may or may not have to stop just before the east switch, to line that one hand lined switch. It just depends where the last train went over it. When eastbound trains stop for that switch, they momentarily block the downtown crossing, which is 35 to 40 cars behind the engines at that point. Both crossings are equipped with bells, flashing lights, and gates.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, a coal train was departing from Forsyth, eastbound, and had stopped, as usual, to line the switch. This process takes as long as it takes the Conductor to climb of the engine, walk 100 feet or so, line the switch, walk back, and get on the engine. The train is rarely stopped more than a minute. In the time this departing coal train was stopped, an intoxicated man walked up to the crossing and decided not to wait for the train. He decided to cross between coal cars, and at the same time, the Conductor got back on the engine and the Engineer began pulling again. Before this man could get out of the way, the train moved and amputated his legs. Because of the distance between the downtown crossing and the engines, neither person on the train had any idea what had happened, and they departed. At that point, the damage had been done anyway. Even in daylight, the chance of the Engineer or Conductor being aware of that situation would have been less than one in a million. Fortunately for the pedestrian, there was a vehicle waiting at the crossing, and the driver of the vehicle heard him screaming, and called 911. He was flown to a hospital in Billings, where he will most likely recover, although he will have to make some big changes to his lifestyle. Had he crossed over a minute earlier, when the train first stopped, he might have made it across. But either way, it is a risk that is never worth taking. He paid a big price to try to save himself a couple of minutes.