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‘Operation Lifesaver’ tracks down improved railroad safety

Aboard the Mt. Hood Railroad, known for its Train Robbery and Murder Mystery and other fun excursions, one recent charter train had safety as its theme: Let safety cross your mind as you prepare to cross the railroad tracks.

The railroad devoted proceeds from a Hood River-Parkdale round trip to a long-haul project known as Operation Lifesaver, a statewide education program designed to improve public safety on rail tracks, at road crossings, and around railway property and facilities.

“We teach them a better respect for the railroad,” said Mrs. Oregon, Macy Bishop, as she joined 125 other people on the Oct. 18 benefit brunch train. Bishop passed out educational materials and signed photos. She is one of dozens of citizens trained as presenters, volunteers who speak about railroad safety to non-profit groups, senior citizen driving classes, elementary students, school bus drivers, and industry groups such as truck drivers.

In 1977 when Operation Lifesaver started, 149 people died in accidents between trains and motor vehicles and pedestrians. In 2002, the number was 20.

“Accidents are all preventable if people would just obey the law,” said its director, Everett Cutter. He said Operation Lifesaver addresses the “three E’s”: education, enforcement, and engineering. Presenters emphasize rules and procedures of highway crossings and railroad property, helping people understand the way trains and crossings interact.

“Education is aimed in part at people who might say they have nothing to do with the railroad,” said John Ross, a presenter who works as a special agent for Burlington Northern, which operates on the north side of the Columbia River. He said, “Yes, they do, anytime they are near a (railroad) gate crossing. There are points where people come into contact and potential points of contact.”

Operation Lifesaver funnels incident information from train personnel to law enforcement so they can plan enforcement at areas where violations or trespass are known to occur, and helps transportation authorities gather data it needs to make safety decisions — “E” for engineering.

“The program helps identify those areas that qualify for passive or active engineering — signs, lights, or gates,” said Terry Hardesty, public safety manager for Union Pacific, which is the main freight operator on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Operation Lifesaver’s outreach programs help provide authorities the information they need to make safety upgrades. State departments of transportation determine where signals will go, based on numbers of vehicles and collisions.

It is important to remember that railway lines are private property, notes Cutter.

“We try to tell people what can happen (along railroad tracks) and why, rather than ‘don’t do this’,” Cutter said.

“There are all sorts of other places to go and have fun,” said Bishop, who is Cutter’s daughter.

“Respect the laws, obey the gates,” said John Ross, who works as a special agent for Burlington Northern, the main freight operator on the north bank of the Columbia. “The gates are not there to make you late. They’re there for your safety,” Ross said.

Much outreach goes to emergency service workers, according to Hardesty, who in their haste to get to and from accidents have been known to endanger themselves and their injured passengers when approaching trains and crossings.

A typical problem is the jogger who is running on the tracks, headphones and music on, paying no attention to an oncoming train.

“They don’t think about it,” Ross said.

Another is the youth who thinks it will be fun to follow a slow-moving train as it shunts in a railyard, not realizing the “rubber band effect of the train connecting,” as Ross put it.

“You think the train is past you, but it can come rolling right back,” he said.

Ross explained that each train car has a separate braking system, allowing a running train to stop within a distance equal to its length. A train 500 feet long can stop within 500 feet. A train one mile long needs a mile to stop.

These are among the lessons provided by presenters, who are trained to have the tools, materials and approach to be effective public speakers. Educators are used in developing materials used by presenters.

Cutter credited education and enforcement cooperation between Operation Lifesaver and State Police on both sides of the river.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” Hardesty said of Operation Lifesaver as it tries to get the public to look at trains in a new way.

Ross acknowledges that trains are viewed as friendly, even romantic, but their bulk and speed require respect and caution.

“A train’s size gives the illusion of moving slowly. What it comes down to is most people aren’t used to dealing with a vehicle this size,” Ross said.

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