RailSmart, a nonprofit educational organization focused on train safety, is asking the Alabama community to think of more than just themselves when it comes to safely crossing the tracks.
Last week in southwest Birmingham, a train hit a car at Rutledge Avenue and Spaulding Street after the driver went around the crossing guards in an attempt to beat the train. Neither the driver of the Hyundai Sonata or the passenger was injured, although according to news reports the train pushed the car down the tracks.
Creed McDaniel, who has worked as a conductor and a locomotive engineer for 11 years, has been involved in three crossing accidents—two in Alabama and one in Mississippi. He says that he frequently sees drivers go around the crossing guards like the Birmingham driver last week. “It’s such a regular thing that you see somebody pull out there, and nine times out of 10, they’ll move before you get there,” McDaniel said.
However, not everyone is able to get out of the way in time. McDaniel’s train once clipped the rear end of a car after its driver sped up and tried to cross the tracks before the train reached a crossing which was not equipped with guard gates. The car went spinning, but no one was injured.
McDaniel’s most recent accident happened three years ago when an 18-wheeler got stuck on the tracks before the gates had even come down. “I would think that [people who have the CDL type license to operate an 18-wheeler] would have more due regard for being sure there are no trains in the immediate area before they pull out onto a railroad,” McDaniel said.
After the accident, where there were no fatalities, McDaniel told his wife, “The last thing I thought about before I hit that 18-wheeler was you and my son.”
Another locomotive engineer and conductor, Wes Wilbanks, experienced an accident that he says he still sees in his dreams. Wilbanks’ train hit a van in the Tuscaloosa area, and the driver was ejected from the vehicle. Wilbanks called 911 on the radio to the dispatcher who sent emergency responders to the accident. The driver died on the scene.
“It was a private road crossing. And there weren’t any crossing gates. But he was lost and stopped on the tracks,” Wilbanks said. “When we hit him, I walked back to the scene and helped the paramedics and the state trooper get him out of there.”
While conductors and engineers like McDaniel and Wilbanks rarely worry about their physical safety during a train accident, except in incidents with large vehicles like 18-wheelers, the emotional toll can be incredible.
As part of the train crew, you’re in “a front row seat” for the accident, McDaniel said. “But some of those faces that you see right there before impact, you know that kind of thing you’ll carry with you the rest of your life.”
Wilbanks also experienced emotional turmoil from the accident. “It’s devastating,” he said. “You’ll never forget that sight when you go back there and see the person and see the scene and all the adrenaline pumping. You’ll never forget.”
Even when the train crew has done everything they can to prevent it (blowing the horn, using their headlights, ringing the bell), they still feel a sense of responsibility for the accident. McDaniel said he reminds himself that there was nothing he could have changed.
“Really the only thing you can do is notify them that you’re coming and cross your fingers that everybody heeds the warning,” Wilbanks said.
The news tends to portray the car driver as the victim and never mentions the conditions of the train crew, McDaniel said. “At the end of the day the train never swerved to hit anybody,” he noted. Ultimately, McDaniel and Wilbanks want drivers to think about the emotional consequences train crossing accidents have on the conductors and engineers who are usually the first responders to the scene.
Accidents waiting to happen
To promote awareness about the extensive consequences of train crossing accidents, McDaniel and Wilbanks became members of RailSmart, an Alabama-based advocacy group that works to educate the community on rail safety due to the large number of trains that go through the Birmingham area. RailSmart is composed of locomotive engineers and conductors who often watch drivers put their lives in danger by going around the crossing guards.
“From Irondale going south, there’s an average of about 150 to 200 trains a day,” said Justin Humphries, a RailSmart director. “And I would say at least a hundred of those trains see somebody run around a crossing gate there.”
According to the Federal Railroad Association, in the year 2015, there were 15 fatal and 97 non-fatal train accidents in Alabama. From January to February 2016, there were 10 non-fatal train accidents.
Humphries says that most train accidents occur because people try to outrun the train by going around the crossing guard arms. “I’ve got friends that say the train’s running slow. It looks like it’s going to take forever for that train to make it to the crossing,” he said. “They say that’s the reason why they run around it.”
However, according to Humphries, the trains coming through certain areas of Birmingham are moving at 50-70 mph.
Humphries also works as a train conductor. “You have a minimum of three [cars] run around a gate from the time the train starts blowing the horn to the time the train is sitting on the crossing,” he said. “And you experience that daily.” The highest rates of drivers running around the crossing guards in Birmingham occur at Center Street and in Powderly, a southwest Birmingham neighborhood, he said.
In Powderly, where the trains go through at 50-70 mph, Humphries said he is surprised he does not see more accidents. Many times cars manage to clear the tracks without accidents, but Humphries feels that it is only a matter of time before an accident does occur.
“It’s kind of like getting a speeding ticket. You’re going to speed. Let’s just say in a week’s time you speed every day on your way to work and on the way home. You’re going to get busted. You’re going to get caught at some time. And so if you’re running around 10 trains, it’s going to catch up with you,” said Humphries.
Humphries repeatedly emphasized how many lives are affected by train accidents.
“When it comes to any accident that happens that results in death, especially when it comes to the general public, what people don’t really think about are the crews that are involved in running the train. I mean you’ve got the engineer that’s driving the train. Well, he’s got to live with the fact that, even though it wasn’t really his fault, he’s got to live with the fact that he’s run over somebody, as well as the conductor is the first responder. So when he walks back to see what happened to evaluate who we need to call, he sees it. So it really weighs on the minds of the people who operate the trains also,” said Humphries.
On July 9, RailSmart will put on a fundraiser called RailFest, with plans to show videos of interviews with the many different people who are affected by train accidents, including conductors, engineers, and family members. RailFest will take place at Railroad Park with the videos showing between musical acts. The goal is to increase awareness of the widespread effects of train accidents.
RailSmart also executes and attends community events like baseball games where they hand out information on crossing safety, trespasser safety, and derailment. They hope that their efforts will not only physically save drivers but also protect their families as well as the conductors and engineers like McDaniel and Wilbanks from emotional trauma.
For more information, visit railsmartal.org.