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His train of thought: Safety
Union Pacific trying to reduce accidents via education
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This motorist last year tried to beat a Union Pacific Railroad train at the Walnut Avenue crossing and lost. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Israel Maldonado doesn’t want a repeat of the 1976 tragedy outside of Manteca where a van carrying 10 Tracy High students was struck by a train, burst into flames, and killed most of the teens instantly.

The Union Pacific Railroad risk management representative is willing to speak to any group about the dangers of crossing railroad tracks and how they can avoid injury or death.

“Trains can’t stop on a dime,” Maldonado told Manteca Rotarians during their noon luncheon Thursday at Ernie’s less than three weeks after the community’s latest train fatality involving a woman walking down the tracks near Walnut Avenue.

Maldonado noted a car in perfect condition and driving under ideal conditions takes 200 feet to stop traveling at 55 mph. Likewise a bus takes 230 feet, a semi-truck 300 feet, a light rail train 600 feet and a freight train 5,280 feet or a mile. That means if a train applies its brakes on a hypothetical track going westbound down Yosemite Avenue at Main Street it wouldn’t stop until it reached Union Road.

He explained the weight ratio of a train rolling over a car is the same as a car rolling over a soda can.

Federal Department of Transportation statistics note:

• There were 2,087 railroad crossing accidents in 2013 that included 251 deaths and 929 injuries.

• There were 412 people killed in 2011 as a result of railroad trespassing or crossing the tracks away from designated crossings.

• Three out of four crashes occur within 25 miles of the motorist’s home. Fifty percent of all crashes occur within five miles of home.

• A motorist is almost 20 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than in a collision involving another vehicle.

The statistics about how train-car accidents happen close to home underscored a point Maldonado made about motorists become complacent in their driving especially when they are in familiar areas.

“Motorists start thinking a train comes only from one direction at a certain time of day or that trains pass through at a specific time each day,” Maldonado noted. “Freight trains don’t follow exact schedules. Any time is train time.”

The railroad industry’s Operation Lifesaver: Look, Listen & Live is aimed at educating the public about railroad safety.

“A lot of parents don’t take the time to tell their children to not play on railroad tracks,” Maldonado said. “That takes just five seconds to say.”

Tips to enhance safety around railroad tracks include:

• Not driving around crossing arms.

• Not being distracted while driving.

• If traffic stops, don’t block the railroad tracks.

• If on foot, not standing too close to a passing train as they have a three-foot overhang.

• Don’t throw anything at a train as it will simply bounce back at you becoming a dangerous projectile at the speed the train is traveling whether it is 35 mph or 60 mph 

• Be alert and make sure you can hear approaching trains at crossings whether on foot, bicycling or driving. Many victims were seen wearing earphones apparently listening to music when they were struck.

• If your car stalls on the tracks, get out and run towards the direction the train is coming from. That’s so you won’t get hit by flying debris when your car is struck.

• If you need to abandon your car on the tracks don’t return to get something you left after making it away safely. Maldonado referenced one incident where a driver and his passenger got stuck on the tracks, fled the car as the train was approaching but the driver then went back to retrieve his lunch and was killed.

• Do not place objects on the tracks such as coins to flatten. Train wheels are designed to pitch objects on the track off to avoid derailments. Maldonado recalled a childhood friend who put a railroad spike in the rail and ended up getting impaled in the middle of his back 1.5 inches deep as he ran away when the train hit the spike and sent it flying.

• Only cross tracks at designated crossings.

Maldonado offered advice for anyone who stalls on the tracks or gets caught up on a high clearance crossing. Immediately call Union Pacific dispatch at 1.800.555.5555 and read them the crossing number that can be found on a blue plate on a control box near the crossing that also lists the 800 number. The dispatcher can then alert any approaching train.