The Ottumwa Courier

April 11, 2014

Train collision spike worries experts

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — In April 2013 there was a crash at a rail crossing near Batavia. Two children died. Another was injured, along with the children’s mother.

Less than a month later, in Ottumwa, a train struck a pickup that apparently tried to slip through the crossing ahead of it. One person went to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

It wasn’t just southeast Iowa. The whole state had a bad year at railroad crossings in 2013. Operation Lifesaver ranked Iowa 15th nationally for the number of people injured and killed at railroad crossings for the year.

Now, the organization wants to make sure 2013 was a statistical oddity, not the start of a new trend.

DeQuendre Neeley-Bertrand, a spokeswoman for Operation Lifesaver, joined the organization last year. Iowa stuck out right away.

“I remember one of the first things I saw was story after story about grade crossing crashes in Iowa,” she said.

The 38 percent rise in injuries and fatalities at Iowa crossings represents a rise from 21 such cases in 2012 to 29 last year. It’s easy to think the eight additional injuries isn’t that striking. But remember, in every one of those cases it’s one more person whose life changed for the worse.

Operation Lifesaver is pushing a “See Tracks? Think Train!” slogan as part of a campaign to ensure 2014 sees fewer people hurt.

Neeley-Bertrand pointed to two basic factors explaining why railway accidents are up. She said rail traffic is up, which increases the opportunities for conflicts. The other is that people have more distractions than ever. Being focused on a cell phone or other device is a particular contributor for accidents along rail lines away from crossings.

It’s not as if there is no warning of a train approaching a crossing. If the crossing is signaled, the familiar bars drop across the roadway and loud bells signal the risk. And trains sound their horns as they approach.

Quiet zones exist in some southeastern Iowa communities, including Fairfield and Burlington. But those come with additional safety requirements, including enhancements to prevent people from driving around the arms barring the road. A quiet zone has been proposed for Ottumwa, but has yet to make significant progress.

The numbers for train crashes are tiny compared to the number of car crashes in a year, but people stand a much greater chance of serious injury when involved in a train collision. Simply put, trains are bigger. They have more mass and much more momentum. While it might take a truck the length of a football field to stop, trains can take a mile.

That adds up to absolutely devastating consequences for people involved in crashes.

“It’s a catastrophic event,” said Neeley-Bertrand. “It changes everything.”