Operation Lifesaver is a national non-profit public safety eduction organization dedicated to preventing fatalities and injuries at crossings and along the railways.
Wednesday, a special enforcement train left the station at Portsmouth, traveled to Rickenbacker Air Force Base and back with stops in Waverly and Chillicothe, observing any activity that could possibly occur at crossings along the way. During the five-hour trip, six such infractions — three in Portsmouth, one in Lucasville and two in Circleville — were observed.
“We have seen, around the country, when we have run these enforcement trains, we’ve had semi trucks go in front of us. We’ve had collisions with them. We’ve had school bus drivers. We’ve had fuel trucks. We’ve had people even commit suicide by jumping in front of the train,” Operation Lifesaver state coordinator Shel Senek said, as the train rolled out of Portsmouth. “So the point that’s really important is the engineer. They don’t have an opportunity to choose what happens to them. They’re dedicated to rails. They can only put on emergency braking, and sound their horns. Drivers or people can steer or take evasive action — take braking things that an engineer can’t. So really the last thing that an engineer sees is the person they are about to strike and kill. That’s the last thing they see, and they are very helpless to do anything about it.”
Before the train had come to the third crossing, those on the train saw the first infraction by way of a closed circuit camera mounted on the front of the train. A truck ran the lights. Minutes later it happened again in Lucasville.
“A typical freight train in Ohio is two locomotives and 100 cars,” Senek said. “You’re traveling at 55 miles an hour. That engineer, using all of the emergency braking available they have to them will take them at least a mile or more to stop. Compare that to a car at 55, about 200 feet. So you’re comparing 5,280 feet to 200 feet.”
Senek said the speed of a train is an optical illusion.
“If you go to an airport and you watch a jet come in for a landing, that jet looks like it’s floating until it hits the runway, then you get a frame of reference really how fast that jet is traveling,” Senek said. “A train does the same identical thing. A train approaches you and whether you are a pedestrian or whether you are in your car, because of its size, and its angle of approach, a 60-mile-an- hour freight train may look like it’s creeping along at 20-25 miles an hour. If we perceive that it is moving slow, and it’s a long way off, I’ve got plenty of time. I can go across the crossing. In reality, those trains are moving fast because they are creating an optical illusion.”
Senek was asked why people trespass on railroad property, risking their lives in the process.
“Trespassing is kind of an interesting phenomena,” Senek said. “Before the advent of motor transportation, people used to hitch to trains, use that as a conveyance. People never thought too much of the rails that it was problematic or that it was private property. A lot of people think it’s government property — I’m a taxpayer; I have a right to be on the property. It’s not.”
Senek said that besides the criminal offense of trespassing, it can be deadly.
Breaking the law at railroad crossings is punishable by a maximum of 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.
Among those on the train was Lt. Mike Crispen, commander of the Portsmouth Post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
“The benefit of it (Operation Lifesaver) is the education,” Crispen said. “Absolutely the whole focus of this operation is educating the community about trespassing on the railroads, and about vehicle crossings — stop, look both directions, make sure the barriers aren’t down, and don’t cross when they see the train coming.”
From 2001 to 2009 Scioto County recorded nine crashes, resulting in three injuries and one fatality.
FRANK LEWIS can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232.