No collision increase since train 'quiet zone' created

Transcript File Photo

A south bound BNSF train collided with a vehicle on Boyd Street near Classen Boulevard on Aug. 27, sending two people to the hospital.

Norman residents feel the ground tremble, hear the rolling roars and see the bright headlights as trains make their way through the middle of the city each day.

It's a burden to some and a fascination to others, but trains have become a part of the college town's character.

The occasional whistle of the trains is heard too, though not as frequently as before the city passed a "quiet zone" ordinance in February 2017, requiring engineers to not sound their whistles unless they believe it is necessary. In instances where a person is walking near the tracks, a car is stopped on the tracks or even if an animal is in the way, trains are likely to sound whistles as a warning.

"I think that's probably the biggest misconception with the quiet zone," said Sarah Jensen, Norman Police Department spokeswoman.

She said there has not been an increase in train collisions since the city implemented the quiet zone. There have been six train collisions in Norman in the almost three years since the quiet zone began, she said. There were seven collisions in the three years before the quiet zone was approved.

Train collisions happen for various reasons, whether they are accidental or purposeful, such as negligence of pedestrians, drivers or conductors; faulty train or track equipment, crossing gate malfunctions or suicides, Jensen said.

"The majority of them are suicides, or ruled to be accidental by negligence of the driver or bicyclist," she said of train collisions in Norman.

Collisions and causes

Two different railway operations have trains that travel through Norman. Amtrak Heartland Flyer is a daily passenger train that travels from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has approximately 36 freight trains that travel through Norman daily.

There have been 21 train collisions in Norman since 2009, including 14 that involved fatalities, Jensen said. Sixteen were train-pedestrian collisions, four were train-vehicle collisions and one was a train-bicyclist case, she said.

Of the 16 train-pedestrian collisions, 12 were fatal and nine were ruled suicides. One of the four train-vehicle and the train-bicyclist collisions were fatal. Only two of the 21 collisions were officially ruled accidental. The remaining collisions do not have official conclusions which means the investigations did not result in a defining cause, Jensen said.

"The train tracks do run through a highly dense population with a lot of pedestrian traffic in the city of Norman," Jensen said. "So whether you look at that as the downtown area or the fact that they run right by the campus, there is a lot of traffic, and unfortunately people tend to think that it's a shortcut to cut across the tracks."

Jensen said that most train-vehicle and train-bicyclist collisions occur at crossings, and many train-pedestrian collisions occur between crossings.

Train crossings at Main and Boyd streets have had the most collisions over the past 10 years with three each, Jensen said. The Federal Railroad Administration reports the majority of Norman train collisions before 2009 occurred at the Rock Creek Road crossing, with 15 collisions.

Some facts people might not know about trains is their speed, which could be hard to judge when trying to "beat" a train. According to BNSF, the average speed that their trains travel is 40 miles per hour.

Additionally, people may not realize that trains extend beyond each side of the tracks up to 4 feet, Jensen said.

Caused by suicide

Mental illness is often a contributing cause to an individual wanting to harm themselves or having suicidal ideations, and could be an explanation that almost half of the train collisions in the past 10 years have been suicides.

Bonnie Peruttzi, executive director of Transition House, a non-profit organization in Norman which provides transitional living and community outreach to people with serious mental illness, said some individuals in the program have expressed temptation regarding the proximity of the tracks.

Peruttzi said their office is near Campus Corner on Asp Avenue and West Duffy Street and relatively close to the tracks.

"Fortunately, they have made the decision to come to our office instead of the tracks, but you know, for some folks, if they don't have that support system it's easy to make that decision," Peruttzi said.

Peruttzi also said the combination of vulnerable people and the train tracks can be a risk for suicide attempts.

"Norman happens to have tracks running through the middle of town and there are a lot of indigent folks that are in that central area," Peruttzi said. "So that constant -- here are the tracks, I'm not in a good place, that impulse decision -- it's there."

But knowing this risk, Peruttzi said the team at Transition House does their best to keep the worst from happening.

The Norman Police Department also has a Community Outreach unit that focuses on mental health and education and a Crisis Intervention Team with officers trained specifically in the area of mental health.

Collision response

When collisions do occur, Jensen said the Norman Police Department handles them the same way as traffic collisions.

"We provide emergency response just as we would any other traffic collision with significant injury," Jensen said. "Once our officers are on the scene, the first priority is obviously locating anyone that was involved, providing emergency care, and rendering aid to those individuals."

After it has been determined what happened and the individuals involved are taken care of, Jensen said investigation begins.

BNSF has its own police department that responds when there has been a collision involving one of its trains, and performs an investigation separate from the police department's, Jensen said.

"During that investigation, investigators or detectives are able to really find facts that help them to determine what exactly caused that specific collision to occur," Jensen said.

The investigation includes checking the train, the horn, the video footage as well as talking to any witnesses who may have seen the accident, she said. From there, the train remains stopped until the investigation is complete, then cleared from the scene just like with any traffic incident.

Preventative acts

Police and other organizations work to prevent train collisions in Norman. Jensen said the police department works with BNSF and programs such as Operation Lifesaver and Operation RAILSAFE.

Operation Lifesaver is an effort to reduce the number of train collisions, and Operation RAILSAFE has the goal of preventing train-related terrorist attacks and responding if an event does occur.

Over the last few decades, there has been an overall decrease in collisions across the United States. According to Operation Lifesaver reports, train collisions nationwide have declined over the past few decades, from 9,461 in 1981 to 5,715 in 1990 to 2,217 in 2018.

Jensen said police also educate and enforce train safety through ride-alongs, routine patrol and various education projects throughout the year.

The city upgraded all train crossings prior to implementing the quiet zone by increasing the height of medians, the amount of signs and other features were added to help better notify pedestrians and drivers of approaching trains, Jensen said.

But despite safety efforts by the city, pedestrians and drivers still should heed all warnings at crossings when near the tracks such as lights, sounds and signals and to eliminate distractions, she said.

This story was written as part of a public affairs reporting class at the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism.

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