Commentary: Stalled on top of a railroad track? Here’s what to do

Issue Date: September 16, 2020
By Sam Dotson
Sam Dotson
Emergency Notification System signs at every railroad grade crossing display a toll-free telephone number to a dispatch center that can alert oncoming trains of an obstruction on the tracks.
Photo/Amtrak

From my experience, I would say law enforcement and farming are very similar in at least two respects. The work is hard, and the hours are long. But unlike you, I don't have a 550-ton train running through my office at 70 miles per hour.

Two years ago, I joined the Amtrak Police Department and it was only then that I became so aware of how unforgiving the railroad environment can be. Every three hours, someone or something is hit by a moving train, most often with deadly consequences. We operate over 22,000 miles of track through America's cities, rural towns and farmland, and none of that territory is immune to train collisions.

One of these crashes happened in California, Aug. 8. Amtrak Train 14 hit an unoccupied piece of farm equipment in Soledad, shattering the locomotive windshield. The unfortunate reality is that trains and farm equipment are a deadly combination.

If you were stuck on the railroad tracks in your car or farm vehicle, what would you do? Nearly everyone would say, get out of your vehicle and dial 911. Few would say, if a train is not coming, get out of your vehicle and call the Emergency Notification System or ENS number on the blue-and-white sign posted at every railroad grade crossing. But in many cases, that's the best way to inform authorities of your emergency.

Here's why: When you call the ENS number, you speak directly to a live dispatcher who controls all train traffic at that crossing 24/7/365. The dispatcher will contact the locomotive engineer immediately and tell him or her to stop the train, because someone or something is blocking the tracks ahead.

At the Amtrak Police Department, we teach first responders and the public about the ENS sign because it is without question the fastest and most direct way to stop a train in an emergency.

When you dial the ENS number, be prepared to give the dispatcher the seven-digit code directly below it. Those six numbers and a letter tell the dispatcher your location and the information needed to stop all train traffic in the area.

To be safe, farmers should go to the railroad crossings they use and find the ENS sign, then jot down the toll-free number and seven-digit locator code. The codes will differ at each crossing, and the same may be true for the toll-free number if the crossing is not owned by the same railroad.

Having these numbers stored in your phone and inside your vehicle is critical, because you may not be near a crossing when you need to stop a train fast. Acting quickly during these emergencies eliminates uncertainty and saves time and potential lives.

While it's important to call the ENS number if you get stuck, the best advice I can give is to simply get out of your vehicle first. You may have only 20 seconds to get away before the train reaches you. Once you are out, run in a 45-degree angle in the direction from which the train is approaching. We tell people to run toward the train to avoid being hit by any flying debris if the locomotive collides with whatever is obstructing the tracks.

Sept. 21 -27 marks Railroad Safety Week, a perfect time to inform family and friends about how to stay safe around railroad tracks. Please remember:

  • Railroad tracks are on private property. If you are on the tracks for whatever reason, you are trespassing, which is punishable in California by fines and potential jail time.
  • State law prohibits you from attempting to cross the tracks once protective gates begin to lower.
  • Never attempt to outrun a train at a crossing. It takes a train about a mile to stop, which is the same as 18 football fields.

Railroad safety is a very real problem in California. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, California has the second highest number of grade crossing incidents in the country—and it leads the nation in the number of trespassing incidents along railroad rights-of-way.

But you have the power to reduce these numbers immediately. I challenge everyone reading this to commit to staying away from railroad tracks. It's not the place to play, walk, jog or take selfies. Remember, trains always have the right of way and can travel on any track, in any direction, at any time.

Finally, I encourage you to visit stayoffthetracks.org to learn more about railroad safety. Watch the videos and share them with your family and friends. Help us keep you and your community safe.

(Sam Dotson is Amtrak chief of police.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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