Trespasser Death Epidemic Worsens


Fans Urged to Report Persons On or Near Tracks


Trespassers continue to put themselves in harm's way on railroads in the Philadelphia area, as well as nationwide. Suicides may be the most common cause of these incidents, but in many cases the fatalities are the result of trespassers' failure to recognize the imminent danger posed by railroad tracks. The safety organization Operation Lifesaver reports that about every three hours a person or vehicle is hit by a train somewhere in the United States. OL's slogan is "See track? Think train."

The statistics are frightening. According to this writer's count, in the year 2016 at least 29 persons were struck and killed by trains in the five-county area of southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey. More than half of these tragedies occurred on Amtrak and SEPTA Regional Rail lines, although four others involved the subway-elevated system, two on the Norristown High Speed Line, two on CSX freight lines, one on NJ Transit and two on PATCO. Another man was killed by a SEPTA trolley. In 2015 there were 23 rail trespasser deaths in the Philadelphia region, 21 in 2014 and 15 in 2013.

There are no reliable statistics regarding how many of  these fatalities were suicide-related or how many were simply the result of carelessness, inebriation or medical problem. But media reports indicate that the majority appeared to be intentional in nature. The Federal Railroad Administration tallies the number of  trespasser deaths and injuries for the entire country, although the FRA figures include only railroad incidents and not those occurring on transit lines. In the full year of 2015 there were 454 trespasser fatalities on railroads nationwide, of which the FRA reported 21 in Pennsylvania. Seventeen of those occurred in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. The FRA also keeps track of grade crossing collisions in the U.S., which alone accounted for 244 fatalities and 967 injuries in 2015.

The urge to end one's life in front of a train is a subject for the psychology profession, perhaps another sign of the stress that pervades the lives of many in our society. But it is a phenomenon that has increased in frequency over the last decade. A case can be made that suicide by train is really a thoughtless act which can traumatize the engineer at the controls of the striking train, causing more than a few of them to seek counseling. In addition, the hundreds of passengers on board the train, and other trains on the line, are seriously inconvenienced. There usually are protracted delays resulting from the necessary investigation of the incident, and the need for the coroner to release the train. It's a matter of physics that, when a passenger train is moving at 75, 90, or as much as 125 mph in the case of the Acelas, there is nothing the engineer can do to avoid striking a person on the track just a short distance ahead.

Readers of Cinders and other railfans/photographers who may be at trackside should watch for any individuals walking on or near the tracks, or who are otherwise in imminent danger or acting suspiciously. A quick cellphone call to the police department of the railroad involved should be made. Those phone numbers are as follows:

                         Amtrak ..................................... 800-331-0008

                         SEPTA ..................................... 215-580-8111

                         NJ Transit (in NJ only) .............. 800-242-0236

                         CSX .......................................... 800-232-0144

                         Norfolk Southern ................... 800-453-2530

                         Conrail Shared Assets ........... 800-272-0911

                         PATCO ..................................... 856-963-7995

If possible, the observer may take direct action by verbally warning the trespasser to vacate the track area immediately. (Some have actually been spotted walking in the gauge while wearing earbuds or headphones, seemingly oblivious to the danger.)

It is hoped by everyone in the railroad and transit industries, and all those interested in rail transportation, that more will be done to educate the public to the very real hazards that exist on railroad rights-of-way. Railfans already are well aware of such dangers and themselves must avoid trespassing in those areas.