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Central Albertans taking too many risks at rail lines

Ten years ago, a Blackfalds elementary school student came close to being struck by a train.

The child was not hit, but concerns were raised in the community.

A decade later, that section of train tracks remains unfenced and the concerns remain.

A stretch of tracks running through Blackfalds separates residential neighbourhoods from a school. Because of a long walk — about eight blocks from a residential area to the controlled intersection and then back to the school on the other side of the tracks — people have a tendency to cross the tracks wherever they want.

Jason Spatt, father of a school-aged child, recently sent an email to Canadian Pacific Railways, Blackfalds Mayor Melodie Stol and the principal of Iron Ridge School raising the concern.

CP spokesman Kevin Hrysak said they have been working on a few rail-related issues in Blackfalds.

Stol said the issue was a part of the most recent council meeting, on Tuesday. She said town administration will be meeting with CP in February and the focus will be on rail safety education.

“In 2011, we had requested some education services for Blackfalds,” said Stol. “A lot of new people have come to Blackfalds over the years, we have tremendous growth. The big push for us is to make sure CPR is providing either education at the school level or information in our welcome packages for new residents.”

After the incident in 2003, Laura Tisdale, a teacher at Iron Ridge Elementary, helped her class write letters to Red Deer North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski expressing their concerns about that section of tracks.

“The administration had just put an announcement over the intercom several mornings in a row, reminding the kids to cross safely,” said Tisdale.

“It was a scary thing to happen, because this kid was narrowly missed.”

Those letters led to Jablonski speaking in the legislature about the section of train tracks that is frequented by school-aged children.

The incident was worked into a few lesson plans at the school. Tisdale said they managed to work it in to social class, through the letters to the MLA, and in math.

“A lot of these kids do cross, it’s a long distance between where the lights are on the one road, down by the ball diamonds, to where the lights are by the arena that intersects with Broadway (Avenue),” said Tisdale. “It’s a long distance so they will sneak across.”

Now, 10 years later, she still warns her students about the dangers of crossing the tracks away from the controlled intersection.

Dan Di Tota, the national director of Operation Lifesaver, a train safety awareness and education organization, said a lot of people don’t understand the danger of crossing tracks wherever they please. As well as trespassing on private property, it could have deadly consequences.

Although not every train is the same, Di Tota said a train with about 8,000 tonnes of freight would take up to two km to come to a complete stop in an emergency situation.

“That’s small for the West, because the West trains are usually a lot longer and heavier,” said Di Tota, adding they are more likely in the 10,000-to-15,000-tonne range.

There are other factors to consider, including if the train is going uphill or downhill and weather, but two km in an emergency situation is what Di Tota said was the average stopping distance.

In a non-emergency situation, a locomotive engineer would plan to stop five km in advance.

“Meanwhile a person who is walking, it’s a lot easier for them to stop; a (vehicle) driver, it’s a lot easier for them to stop. At a railway crossing, it is always incumbent on the pedestrian or vehicle driver to stop,” said Di Tota.

Trains can reach speeds up to 100 km/h for freight, but reduce their speed in urban centres. The speed in urban centres varies based on track grade and situation, ranging from 15 km/h to 70 km/h. Di Tota said they range from long-range travel tracks, which have higher speed limits, to tracks around yards or switches, which would have slower speed limits.

According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, there were 47 rail-related accidents in Alberta in 2012: four fatalities and seven serious injuries at crossings.

There were also 11 accidents as a result of trespassing, with five fatalities and five serious injuries.

Di Tota said locomotive engineers see people crossing the tracks in front of them every day.

“What concerns us is when you read between the lines,” said Di Tota. “You’ll notice people approaching from a distance and you’re thinking ‘That person doesn’t know we’re here. That person doesn’t hear us or see us.’ That’s when your guard goes up and you blow your horn or you have your hand on the brake. You try to find ways to get their attention.

“Or you’ll have the blatant ones who see you, walk up really slow, or even in a car they’ll drive up real slow and then at the last minute, they’ll gun it or run across. Now all of a sudden your heart goes right to your throat.”

Another concern is when there are children around because, Di Tota said, you never know what a child is going to do. He said as an engineer you want to make sure everyone is aware of your presence. This can be particularly frightening if a person is walking on the tracks while wearing headphones, oblivious to their surroundings.

“Then you figure common sense will keep them away,” said Di Tota.

“There are a lot of scary moments and there are a lot of tragic moments.”

Every train crew member will experience at least one tragic event in their career, he said.

“That’s the sad story of life as a train crew,” said Di Tota.

Train crossings in towns are commonplace, so Blackfalds isn’t unusual.

Similar problems exist in Sylvan Lake. Mayor Susan Samson said the railway, which bisects her town, has four controlled access points.

A number of years ago, the town built a parking lot on the south side of the tracks. The primary purpose of the lot was for people using the arena, but also for overflow parking for beachgoers. To get to the beach, however, they had to cross the tracks.

To prevent large numbers of people from crossing the tracks wherever they pleased, the town erected a fence. At first it was a chain link fence, but it was upgraded to wrought-iron, to further discourage people from climbing the fence and crossing the tracks.

“There is a natural tendency for people to park their car and walk across the tracks at an area that is not controlled at all,” said Samson.

“By putting the fencing up, it would be a two-block range, on both sides of the track, that forced the people to funnel to the actual crossings.”

There have been six collisions, some fatal, in Sylvan Lake at the 50th Street railroad crossing since 1993.

In December 2012, the town met with officials from Canadian National Railway, Alberta Transportation and Transport Canada to address a railway crossing that was causing some concerns. The train crossing at 50th Street is set to be upgraded in 2014.

Clive Mayor Anita Gillard said the village office hasn’t received any complaints or concerns recently about safety in regards to the train that runs through the municipality.

But at one point there was concern as the tracks, which bisect Clive, were being crossed by children living on the west side of the village to get to school. A chain link fence was erected and the problem was fixed — the students were funneled to a controlled intersection.

Di Tota said common sense and awareness of the situation can keep people safe, and prevent tragedy.

“If the gate is down or the lights are flashing, that means something. It doesn’t mean hurry up, it doesn’t mean to go around them. It means stop and let the train go by before you proceed,” said Di Tota.



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