Railroad safety from Blackwell's Northern Gateway Railroad

by Jordan Green

Engineers on the Blackwell Northern Gateway Railroad have never hit a vehicle or pedestrian with a train.

They don’t want to have a “first,” either.

Even though Blackwell’s short-line railroad doesn’t have trains running up and down the tracks every day, it’s important for drivers to use caution when approaching railroad crossings in order to avoid having a collision, said BNG President Scott Nauer.

“We’ve probably had about 100 close calls when it comes to hitting vehicles,” said Nauer. “I’ve almost been hit twice by cars when trying to stop traffic at a crossing.”

Nationwide, those close calls all too often become reality. According to Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit that works to educate students and adults on railroad safety, a total of 2,105 collisions between trains and vehicles were reported in 2017. In 807 of them, one or more people sustained injuries. In 274, one or more people were killed.

The organization also states that a driver is 20 times more likely to die in a collision with a train than in a collision with another vehicle, something Nauer says isn’t hard to believe.

“A collision between a train and a car is usually equated to the force of your car running over a pop can,” Nauer said. “Generally, trains don’t stop quickly, and they can’t swerve.”

Most of the “close calls” Nauer spoke of have taken place at the railroad crossings on Blackwell Avenue, which serves as the railroad’s main car storage facility. There, train cars are frequently being moved back and forth across the roadway. A visual survey of the area revealed that there are approximately five crossings in a one-block stretch.

To keep from causing a crash, Nauer asks that drivers pay close attention to their surroundings when crossing railroad tracks. The “rule of thumb” to use around crossings, Nauer said, is “Look, listen, live.”

Trains are equipped with loud horns that are used as they approach crossings, and drivers are asked to listen for the horns. When trains are nearing a crossing marked with lights and bells, it’s important to treat the flashing red lights as stop lights. But not all crossings have lights and bells, and those that do may not always work properly. So, as Nauer said, always look for a train.

“We just ask people to look both ways before crossing,” he said. “See tracks, think train.”

And, if you do see a train, remember to stop and wait.

“If you see a train, don’t try to beat it to the crossing. Generally, trains don’t stop quickly, and they can’t swerve,” said Nauer.

Even though most railroad-related injuries occur when vehicles are involved, instances in which pedestrians are injured on railroad tracks still occur in large numbers. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 1,080 individuals who were trespassing on railroad property were injured and killed after being hit by a locomotive.

Under Oklahoma law, it is illegal to walk along railroad tracks, take pictures on railroad tracks, climb on train cars, and throw rocks at railroad equipment and personnel. Those who are convicted of trespassing can be fined and arrested, with the maximum jail sentence being one year. And if the person damages railroad property while trespassing, the charge is as a felony.

Nauer reminds citizens to keep off of railroad property under all circumstances.

“I’ve seen some pictures people have taken while standing on the tracks,” Nauer said. “We try to be nice about it and ask people not to do it. Our big issue is with people using the tracks as a walking shortcut, especially during this time of the year. If there’s snow on the ground, trains are surprisingly quiet.”

Nauer said he strictly enforces the railroad’s no-trespassing policy in the interest of safety.

“We don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said. “Trains are big, heavy, and unforgiving.”