By Josh Funk
Railroads are launching a new campaign to highlight the dangers of being near train tracks after a spike in rail deaths last year.
At this time last year, the railroads were proudly calling 2012 their safest year ever as derailments and crossing accidents kept declining. But last year, the number of trespassing deaths rose by 47, or 11 percent, to 476, and the number of deaths in accidents increased nearly 8 percent to 250.
Although the rates vary from year to year and there are only theories to explain last year’s increase, it prompted federal regulators to develop a public campaign aimed at reducing accidents. Ads released Tuesday focus on how people and vehicles stand no chance against a train.
“We need to make sure people understand the danger they’re putting themselves in on the rails,” said Joyce Rose, CEO of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about railroad hazards.
It’s difficult to determine what was behind the death increase in 2013, but Rose believes it may be related to smartphones and other electronic devices.
“We’re a distracted population,” Rose said.
The main television commercial for the new campaign, dubbed “See Tracks? Think Train,” shows a young man walking on railroad tracks while wearing headphones and not realizing a train is coming.
Mark Kalina, who lost parts of both legs in a train accident, supports the message.
The 24-year-old said he knew he made a bad decision when he tried to walk around a stopped train to get to his apartment in Columbus after he’d been out with friends in October 2012. The train started moving, and Kalina’s shirt got caught. But after climbing aboard the train to free his shirt, Kalina fell under the train. Kalina, who hopes to return to Ohio State in the fall to compete his degree, wants others to learn from his mistake.
“It just takes one bad time to possibly end your life,” Kalina said.
Ohio, which ranks as one of the top five states in the nation for train-related deaths because of trespassing, likely will be a focus for the campaign. There are 5,300 miles of track and 5,800 public crossings in the state.
“People don’t need to be walking on the train tracks,” said Gena Shelton, state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, who noted that train-related deaths are on the rise in the state. “A campaign like this with a simple message that makes people think and do a double-take is what we need.”
Last year, there were 35 deaths in Ohio, including 24 related to trespassing, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. The previous year, there were 26 fatalities, including 17 related to trespassing. The incidents do not include suicides or attempted suicides.
The deaths and injuries are preventable, Shelton said.
The national effort is backed by the Association of American Railroads trade group, major railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration.
Despite the increase in deaths in 2013, regulators note that railroad safety has significantly improved over the past decade by most measures.
The Federal Railroad Administration said the number of injuries and deaths from trespassing fluctuates from year to year based on factors such as construction near train tracks or increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Beacon Journal staff writer Rick Armon contributed to this report.