Every time Union Pacific engineer Mike Coleman sees a person dart in front of the train he is operating - or a car race under crossing arms - he worries.
Coleman knows what can happen when things go terribly wrong. And in his nearly 15 years of operating trains, there are some memories he'll never forget.“It’s extremely stressful for a train crew,” Coleman said of crashes on the tracks. “You’ll never be the same again.”
In Tempe on April 18th, 23-year-old Kerry Garcon was killed after he was struck by a train in the early morning hours. Also, in September, a man committed suicide on the tracks near Tempe St. Luke’s hospital, and in February of last year, a drunken person passed out on the train tracks and lost his legs.
Although Tempe hasn’t had a fatal collision at a railroad crossing since 1998, Tempe and Union Pacific police remain concerned with increasing traffic and some drivers’ routine disregard for laws.
So as a reminder to the public, police spent a portion of Monday stationed at various railroad crossings throughout the city, ticketing drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians who broke the law.
A Tribune reporter rode on a Union Pacific train with police for about 30 minutes up and down Ash Avenue in downtown Tempe and witnessed eight violations. Police ticketed a total of 28 people, including seven trespassers.
“People think that if they get under the gate without scratching their car ... they’re safe, but that isn’t true,” said Tempe police Sgt. Jon Waide. “We’re trying to educate people ... trying to change that driving behavior.”
As the arms began to drop in front of one car Monday, it quickly accelerated to get through the crossing. In one case, a bicyclist zipped under the crossing arms, and in another, a man ran across the tracks as the train barreled forward.
But it wasn’t just traffic violations that caught the officers’ attention. In one instance, an angry resident threw rocks at the train because he didn’t want to hear the engine outside his home on Ash Avenue.
Train crew members said they routinely face rocks or objects — such as shopping carts and railroad spikes — left intentionally on the tracks.
They also deal with burglars, people who hitch rides on trains as a hobby and pranksters who detach cars from the train while crew members are distracted with problems.
A 21-year-old college student, who asked not to be named because she is applying to nursing school, was given a warning Monday after walking across the train tracks to take a shortcut from a parking lot.
“They just told me it’s illegal to cross the tracks, which I understand,” the woman said. “I just thought it would be easier.”
She added, “Maybe a sign would be nice, or some sort of barrier.”
Police said that as long as there are “no trespassing” signs in the area, pedestrians are obligated to abide by them.
Waide said he has even witnessed the successful prosecution of one trespasser who was 1,000 feet away from the posted sign.
“A lot of times when there is a crash, people say, ‘How come the railroad company or city doesn’t do anything about it?’ ” said Joseph Cantu, Union Pacific senior special agent and public safety officer.
Cantu said that the education of not only residents, but of bus drivers and commercial drivers, is one of the ways the company tries to minimize collisions.
Other programs Union Pacific offers target impaired drivers and speeders.
Coleman said he often makes eye contact with people before they run out in front of the train. He said many people don’t stop to think about the impact of their actions on the train’s crew.
“When people jump in front of the train unexpectedly, there’s little you can do other than try to stop,” Coleman said. “And if you can’t stop, you’re forced to witness somebody killing themselves.”
He added, “And the sad thing is, all the ones I’ve seen have been avoidable.”