Rule 1: Always expect a train; Operation Lifesaver gives police, officials look at potential crossing dangers along Norfolk Southern line

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Here's a simple way to think about train safety -- whenever approaching railroad tracks, expect a train anytime, on any track, and from any direction.

Operation Lifesaver and Norfolk Southern Railroad gave safety presentations last week during a train ride from Springfield to Griggsville, and two full cars of various law enforcement officers and public service officials got to see rural Illinois from the freight line, rarely used for passenger service.

Norfolk Southern operates a rail line from Decatur to Kansas City, Mo. The line passes through Pike County, with many railroad crossings in New Salem, Baylis, Barry, Kinderhook, Hull and across the Mississippi River into Hannibal.

Between 2005 and 2009 in Illinois, 768 collisions occurred at railroad crossings, resulting in 340 injuries and 129 fatalities.

"Railroad safety is everybody's problem," said Chip Pew, state coordinator of Illinois Operation Lifesaver. "If we all do our share, we can avoid those tragic incidents."

A staggering 38.5 percent of all crashes took place at crossings with gates, meaning vehicles had to go around the gates and onto the tracks before being struck.

Operation Lifesaver was started in 1972 to end collisions, deaths and injuries at places where roads cross train tracks and on railroad rights of way. Its programs are sponsored by federal, state and local government agencies; highway safety organizations; and the nation's railroad companies.

Engineer Bill Crisp drove the train Wednesday at about 60 mph and said he's been involved in several crashes with vehicles on tracks. There are always two people in the front engine train, and both constantly look out and keep alert for potential issues on the tracks.

"I was in a crash once, and I saw it from half a mile away, but there's nothing you can do about it," Crisp said.

During the trip, two young deer were spotted several hundred yards ahead. Crisp slowly applied the brakes, but the startled deer simply ran straight down the tracks away from the train, finally veering off in the nick of time.

"No way I could have stopped if I had been hauling a big freight," Crisp said.

Many of the crossings visible during the trip had gates, but some simply had lights and signs. When rolling through the small towns, Crisp would often sound his train whistle, which gave a deafening and roaring blast when heard in the front engine.

Illinois State Police Capt. Pat Staples and Lt. Brad Lacey of Pittsfield-based District 20 both rode in the front engine and said it was an interesting experience.

"I enjoyed it and learned a lot," Staples said. "There's a lot more to the job those guys on the train do than I thought."

"We might have only one, two, three incidents in our area in a year or span of time, but when you do this, you realize those one, two, three incidents will not have very good outcomes," Lacey said.