When you’re at the gears of a locomotive and you see a car or a person on the tracks, you think about hitting the brakes.
But you also know the truth: If you’re moving fast or carrying a full load of cars, the damage is already done. The force of your locomotive hitting a car is like that car running over an aluminum can.
“You worry about not hurting somebody,” said Union Pacific locomotive engineer Chris Dittus, “because you’re always going to win.”
The number of train-vehicle collisions has dropped dramatically over the past few decades.
Nationwide, the rate is down by nearly 80 percent since 1981. But the problem hasn’t disappeared, which means railroads, law enforcement officers and safety advocates still are looking for ways to make rail crossings safer.
Thursday, Dittus cruised through Council Bluffs with a police officer on board, on the hunt for drivers pushing their luck. At six railroad intersections, about eight Council Bluffs police officers, a couple of Iowa State Patrol troopers and a special agent with Union Pacific’s own police force — a special team funded by a state grant — waited.
It didn’t take long.
As the locomotive neared the intersection of South 16th Street and Seventh Avenue in Council Bluffs, Dittus sounded the horn and the crossing warning arms began to drop.
The driver of a tan Chevy Tahoe paused for a moment, swerved around the crossing arm and floored it.
“There you go,” Dittus said, shaking his head.
The driver didn’t make it far. One of the officers was waiting nearby, ready to write a sizable ticket. (In Iowa, a ticket and fines for running through a railroad crossing are $330. In Nebraska, it’s $144.)
Beefed-up enforcement in the past couple of decades has played an important role in the decline in car-train collisions, said U.P. spokesman Mark Davis.
In Council Bluffs, police run the special traffic operations twice a year, once with U.P. and once with BNSF Railway. The work is funded by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.
But enforcement is only part of the picture. Better markings and barriers — along with advances in rail technology — have helped, as has an increased emphasis on talking to drivers about the risks of a run-in with a train.
Across the country in 1981, there were 9,461 vehicle-train incidents that resulted in 3,293 injuries and 728 deaths, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Three decades later, the number of collisions was down by more than 79 percent, to 1,963. Those crashes caused 980 injuries and 265 deaths.
Last year in Nebraska, there were 31 train-vehicle collisions, resulting in 14 injuries and three deaths. There were another two deaths and one injury caused by trains striking people trespassing on the tracks. Iowa had 40 collisions, with 23 injuries and two deaths in 2011.
One trespasser was killed and four injured when they were hit by trains.
Ellis Tompkins, a rail and public transportation engineer with the Nebraska Department of Roads, has worked on rail safety issues since the 1980s.
He said improved technology from the railroads has helped reduce collisions. The warning arms that drop down at road crossings, along with other signals, are triggered by advanced circuit systems in the tracks that can pinpoint how close the train is to the crossing.
“What that means is the gates come down approximately 30 seconds before the train arrives, no matter if the train is doing 20 mph or 60 miles per hour,” Tompkins said. “I think that has been a tremendous improvement. It keeps people from getting impatient at a crossing and going around.”
He said about half of the train-car collision deaths that happen each year in the U.S. happen at gated crossings.
Warning signals at crossings are considered highway signals, so they’re the responsibility of state transportation departments, rather than individual railroads.
But Davis said railroads and community leaders often work together to try new strategies to keep people away from tracks: concrete barriers in the middle of the road, barriers that come up from the ground when the train approaches, new lights, horns positioned at the crossings.
BNSF invests an average of $90 million each year on at-grade crossing maintenance, improvements and safety programs, said railroad spokesman Andy Williams.
Carol Daley, executive director of the Nebraska branch of rail crossing safety organization Operation Lifesaver, said her group talks about the issue with anyone who will listen: elementary school students, driver’s ed participants, truck drivers.
Farmers are another important group, she said, because so many are moving equipment across private rail crossings that don’t require the same type of markings found at public intersections.
“The message is basically: just think before you cross and if you can’t get across, don’t commit,” she said.