Spotlight placed on rail safety - East Valley Tribune: News

Spotlight placed on rail safety

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Posted: Friday, May 26, 2006 5:58 am | Updated: 5:09 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The Arizona Corporation Commission on Thursday discussed beefing up safety rules at railroad crossings in outlying populated areas.

The move was spurred by a crash in Pinal County that killed three people earlier this week when a motorist tried to beat an oncoming train.

The commission called a special meeting to talk about steps it can take to reduce deadly crashes at railroad crossings statewide, including photo enforcement, bolstering community awareness campaigns, and pressuring the railroad companies to reduce train speeds through fast growing regions.

Commissioner Kristin Mayes, who called the special meeting, said fatalities on the railroads need to be addressed.

Monday’s crash was the most recent fatality at a railroad crossing in the past several months.

In November, a woman was killed at a crossing in Gilbert when a train crashed into her stalled car. Mayes said a 77-year-old man was recently killed at a crossing in Pima County. In both cases, the railroad companies were not at fault.

The commission intends to work with the railroads to reduce the speed of trains as they travel through growing areas, such as the booming south East Valley.

Currently, trains in the outlying regions of the Valley can reach speeds as high as 70 mph, but they’re restricted to much slower speeds through urban areas.

The train that smashed into the car on Monday was traveling about 50 mph, according to police reports.

That needs to change, said Commissioner Bill Mundell.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me that trains go through Phoenix at 20 miles per hour while they go 50 to 60 miles per hour in Queen Creek,” he said.

“An urban area is an urban area is an urban area, and the speeds should be the same.”

But forcing the railroad companies to make changes could be difficult because local and state governments have little enforcement authority. In the past, railroad companies have been reluctant to reduce the speed of their trains.

In fact, Mark Davis, a spokesman for Union Pacific railroad, said their studies show more crashes occur at slower speeds because drivers are more likely to take risks.

“Driving behavior changes around slow-moving trains,” he said.

“They try to beat the train because it’s moving slow.”

Davis said a more effective tactic is to raise awareness about the potential dangers at crossings, as well as increased police enforcement.

Cracking down on drivers who attempt to beat trains has produced significant results in other states, he said.

He used Illinois as an example of a state that saw a drastic drop in the number of train crashes after nearly doubling fines for crossing tracks against warning signals.

Additionally, Davis said Union Pacific works with local governments to build

residential developments far away from the tracks.

Union Pacific recommends that cities zone land near the tracks for light industrial or commercial industries.

That improves traffic flow over the tracks and reduces the number of incidents, he said.

To increase public awareness, Jeff Hatch-Miller, the commission chairman, has recommended the state work with the local chapter of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit that teaches train safety.

David Agee, president of the Arizona chapter of Operation Lifesaver, said his group is made of volunteers who go into the community to increase awareness about the dangers of crossings.

Agee, also regional field safety support manager for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, said two people die each day at railroad crossings in the United States.

But Mayes cautioned not to rely too heavily on Operation Lifesaver. The organization has come under criticism for being closely connected to the railroad industry.

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