Union Pacific program teaches train safety

Retired Union Pacific locomotive engineer Dean Dahlin has seen his trains hit nine people in his 42-year career.

Only one survived, and she walks with a limp, he said.

It's a statistic he shares as often as necessary to create public awareness about being safe around trains and tracks.

Dahlin told guest passengers on a safety train running in Kennewick on Friday that while the number of accidents involving trains and vehicles are trending down across the U.S., the number of fatalities involving people trespassing near tracks and being struck by trains is growing.

Washington had 23 deaths involving railroad property last year, said Dahlin, who is UP's coordinator for Washington Operation Lifesaver.

While 60 percent of those were determined to have been suicides, others were the result of poor judgment.

A 19-year-old Finley man lost his life along BNSF Railway Co. tracks in December 2009, apparently after having strolled too close to the rails while a train passed by.

Another Finley youth, 17, died just before Christmas 2007 doing the same thing along the same tracks.

Just last week, a truck driver hauling an empty semi-trailer who thought he could get across the tracks ahead of a UP train near Wallula got a wild ride on the nose of a locomotive.

The driver, who was unhurt, was cited and will be billed for the damage to railroad property, said a UP spokesman on Dahlin's train Friday morning.

Dahlin said about half of the accidents involving trains and vehicles occur at crossings with gates and flashing lights.

A recent enforcement program in Spokane over 11/2 days resulted in railroad officials issuing 187 tickets to drivers who either drove too close to the tracks or drove around or under gates while a train was approaching.

"It is against the law for people to cross tracks anywhere but at a grade crossing or pedestrian crossing," Dahlin said.

Friday's round-trip excursion from Kennewick to Hermiston gave news media and Tri-City officials a closer look at the problem.

Train officials pointed out, while traveling on tracks along the Columbia River, the places people would park their vehicles in the railroad right of way to walk to the river, stepping over rails to reach the water's edge.

Dahlin said that simple act, a fisherman getting out to cross over the tracks, was trespassing on railroad property.

A train traveling at 30 mph with a 6,000-ton load needs half a mile to stop, he said. It is easy to misjudge how fast a train is coming and how long it will take to stop.

That's one reason why on average two to three people die every day in the U.S. in train-related incidents.