There are some 3,200 miles of active train tracks in Virginia, a combination of freight and passenger lines overlaid on our highway system that most of us never think twice about. This transportation system exists in a sort of parallel state with other forms of transit, but follows different rules, regulations, and timeframes.
In late October, Virginia State Police spent the afternoon in Caroline County investigating a catastrophic collision. Debris littered the scene, where an eastbound freight train plowed through a tractor-trailer stuck at a crossing. According to NBC 12, no injuries were reported because, “The tractor-trailer driver got out before the train approached.” Though the tractor-trailer was demolished, the train suffered only minor damage and no personnel were injured. Just a few weeks earlier, however, a Troutville woman wasn’t so lucky. From WDBJ 7:
A woman was seriously injured when a train crashed into a vehicle Friday evening in Troutville, according to Botetourt County Fire & EMS. Crews responded to the crash around 5:05 p.m. at an unguarded railroad crossing along Boone Drive, which is off Lee Highway. The train had crashed into the passenger side of the vehicle, causing the vehicle to roll off the tracks, Chief Jason Ferguson said. The woman was taken to a hospital be treated for serious injuries. She was the only person inside the vehicle.
When cars get stuck on train tracks
Hearing about a vehicle stopped on a crossing while a train approaches sounds like something out a movie; a car stalls as the driver desperately tries to restart the engine, the locomotive bearing down on the vehicle as passengers scramble to open locked doors at the last minute. There’s a general sense that this “couldn’t happen to me” or that the victims failed to exercise common sense. The reality is actually more frightening – and common – than any of us care to believe.
First and foremost, trains operate according to an entirely different set of rules than motor vehicle traffic. They have their own signaling systems, rules for passing and right of way, and are far less maneuverable than motor vehicles. The tracks they ride on must compensate for the massive weight of freight and adhere to strict guidelines that mandate track curvature and grade changes. The railroad system is as different from the highway system as can be, though both must coexist and operate simultaneously. It is at the intersection of these very different systems that most accidents happen.
To underscore this point, we turn to Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OLI), a non-profit dedicated to rail safety education. From their site, “Current Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data shows that highway-rail grade crossing collisions and pedestrian trespass on tracks together account for over 95% of all railroad fatalities.” There are a few very good reasons for this, not least of which is that fully loaded trains can weigh in at a staggering 6,000 tons.
We talk about the catastrophic injuries that victims of big truck accidents sustain all the time, but trains are an entirely different force altogether. To put their sheer size into perspective, a freight train striking a passenger vehicle is equivalent to a standard sedan hitting a child’s remote control car. There’s simply no competition, and the survivability of such an event is just about zero. But why do these accidents happen at all? Isn’t it just a simple matter of not being on the tracks during a crossing event?
Trains as a mode of transportation are vital to our economy, but the logistics involved in operating these massive machines require special considerations. At the risk of repeating ourselves, the weight of locomotives and their cargo require special supports. Speed and curvature must be carefully balanced to avoid derailment, and grade changes must be gradual. Therefore, when the surrounding landscape doesn’t allow for a smooth and level surface, it’s modified to suit the needs of the train.
What you should know about railroad crossings
This is why railroad crossings can be and often are significantly higher or lower than the roadways they cross. These elevation changes are necessary for the safe operation of a train, but can pose significant hazards to the drivers that must cross them. These sudden grade changes can restrict visibility or cause loss of traction or maneuverability. In the worst case, vehicles may not have enough clearance to compensate for the drastic change, leaving tires off the ground or hitches hooked to the tracks.
Additionally, not all railroad crossing are required to have signs or signals installed (particularly those on private property). While most public crossings do have signaling systems to alert motorists of oncoming trains, these systems are not infallible and can fail to function properly. Freight trains don’t travel on a fixed schedule, can move in either direction on any track, and take an extremely long time to come to a full stop (even in emergencies).
It’s worth noting here that, according to OLI, “Trains have the right of way 100% of the time over emergency vehicles, cars, the police and pedestrians.” All these things taken together mean that crossing train tracks (on foot or in a vehicle) is an event that often receives far less attention than it deserves. OLI is an excellent resource on all things train safety, but there are few key points that we feel are worth noting that can help keep you and your loved ones safe.
The biggest thing you can do while driving (or walking) near tracks is to be aware of your surroundings. One of OLI’s most successful campaigns implores pedestrians and motorists alike to “See tracks, think train.” With unpredictable transit schedules and the ability to travel in both directions on a track, it’s better to act as if trains are always just around the bend and never try to beat the lights. This is especially good advice on private property crossings, where crossing signals and warnings may not be present.
Even when crossing signals are present, there may be additional signs that give additional information about specific conditions. In particular, OLI explains that a “Low Ground Clearance” sign indicates a “raised crossing ahead. If you drive anything low to the ground — like a lowboy, bus, truck, sports car or trailer — you are at risk of getting hung up on the tracks. Do not proceed until you know your vehicle will clear the tracks.”
While knowing is half the battle, train crashes can have catastrophic consequences for drivers and pedestrians; after all, accidents happen. However, when crossings are improperly marked or signals fail to operate, those involved are victims of negligence, not circumstance. If you or your loved one was injured in car crash as a result of someone else’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries, medical bills, lost wages and other damages. The Richmond-based personal injury attorneys and car accident lawyers at Phelan Petty fight for you and your family when you need us most. To discuss your case today, please call 804-980-7100 or fill out our contact form. We proudly serve Richmond and all of Virginia.
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Michael Phelan is a Virginia trial attorney who practices with a special focus on traumatic brain injury (TBI) cases, pharmaceutical and medical device claims, product liability cases, and truck accidents. Michael’s peers have consistently recognized him for his excellence as a trial lawyer, and his clients have praised him for his commitment to deep research, his outstanding communication skills, and his sincerity and dedication.