Pratt doesn't often have a passenger train coming through town, but a few dozen people got on board Tuesday morning for a backwards ride that stopped just short of Langdon before returning to the Union Pacific depot on North Main Street.
The special train was a safety promotion of the Union Pacific Railroad and Operation Lifesaver. City, county and law enforcement officials were invited to ride as a captive audience for a couple of locomotive engineers who are also presenters for the non-profit organization that has had a dramatic impact on railroad safety in the last 40 years. Several railroad employees brought their kids along for the ride.
Although the train ride is not a common part of their presentation, Operation Lifesaver volunteers are available for free talks to schools, groups and anyone who will listen. They can tailor their message to young children, adults and everyone in between. Julie LaCombe is the executive director of Operation Lifesaver Kansas. She can be reached at 785-806-8801, 785-479-6701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom and Julie LaCombe often present together; she's the public speaker, he said, and he offers the perspective of an engineer. On Tuesday, he teamed up with another engineer, Bill Fitzgerald. Ironically, as the safety train was waiting for its passengers to embark, the men noticed a car "running the gate."
Going around a lowered cross-arm is never allowed, unless a law enforcement officer or a railroad employee, wearing a green vest, waves traffic on. A train is like an airplane, in that both present an optical illusion. They're moving faster than they appear and are closer than they appear.
Besides being dangerous and illegal, driving around the gate can be expensive. The action could lead to tickets for the offense itself, for driving left of center, for child endangerment if there is a passenger under age 18, and with court costs, could easily reach $1,000, Fitzgerald said.
Half of all train-vehicle or train-pedestrian accidents involve someone trespassing on railroad property. Railroad bridges offer a great place to fish, rights of way are popular jogging spots and some of the best hunting in the state is along rights of way. What are the chances of a train coming along? Greater than you think, LaCombe said.
Railroad bridges have room only for the train — where would a fisherman go? Trains overhang the tracks by about three feet on each side, and better rails have eliminated the "clackety-clack." If the jogger is wearing earbuds, he or she won't hear a train approaching. On a clear track, LaCombe said he could see something on the track two miles away, but if he's topping a grade or coming around a curve, by the time he sees someone, it's too late to stop.
Page 2 of 2 - The message is simple: stay off the tracks, he said.
Operation Lifesaver was started in 1972 by a Union Pacific Railroad employee in Idaho, with the cooperation of many Idaho communities. After the first year of educational programs, the number of crashes, injuries and fatalities dropped by 39 percent. The program is now nationwide, and between 1971 and 1976, collisions with trains dropped 76 percent, LaCombe said. Operation Lifesaver approaches the problem on three fronts: education, engineering (advocating for better tracks and crossings and improved warning systems) and enforcement.
Fitzgerald predicted that rail traffic in Kansas would double within the next 10 years, as fuel becomes more precious, making the mission of Operation Lifesaver and cooperation of the public even more important.