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Officers hop on trains for safety campaign

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MURRAY — Although loud whistles, flashing lights, long cross arms and pavement markings alert motorists to an approaching train, the driver of a maroon truck ducked through the dropping arms of a Murray railroad crossing last week.

To the driver's dismay, it was the second day of a railroad crossing safety campaign in which local law enforcement officers were invited to ride the train to observe motorist behavior and to discipline motorists and pedestrians who ignored the warning signs, including the driver of the maroon truck.

Bret Barney, state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, which sponsored the campaign, said 50 percent of train collisions occur when a car tries to unsuccessfully maneuver around or through the cross arms.

Barney, a retired law enforcement officer, said he hopes that after the campaign, officers will be more sensitive and compassionate towards train crews.

"After a collision . . . officers were pretty insensitive to train crew and what they'd just seen, after they'd sat up here watching a collision unfold and there was nothing they could do," he said. "(The campaign) really gives officers a better understanding of what a a collision is like for the crew."

In 2003, 19 train collisions occurred in Utah, injuring six people. And as of February 2004, three collisions injured five people. Twelve of these incidents were in Salt Lake County.

"There's no way to stop a train," said Salt Lake Union Pacific Railroad Police Department Lt. Scott L. Broussard. "The engineer is helpless when someone goes around the gates."

A loaded freight train traveling at 55 mph takes a mile or more to stop, roughly the length of 18 football fields.

"A train does not stop on a dime," conductor Ray Ipson said. "There's a lot of steel here, and steel doesn't feel pain."

Engineer Clint Gillespie, who wore a pair of traditional blue-striped overalls, said he notices cars maneuvering through the cross arms three to four times a day.

A train can cause a fatality when traveling only 10 mph. It can weigh 12,000 to 13,000 tons when loaded with coal.

Illegal maneuvers around trains don't imperil only motorists. More pedestrians than motorists are killed by trains, usually when walkers are trespassing through train yards or along tracks.

Although Ipson has never hit a pedestrian or a motorist in his 23 years of service, he said he frequently sees pedestrians trespassing near or on trains. Homeless people often hop on the trains, and recently, he has seen schoolchildren cut through the train yard and pass their bikes through the train cars.

"It's just stupid," said train manager Billy Cox, generating a sea of agreements from officers and train crew. Cox said he has seen "too many people fool around" in or around train yards.

Barney said Operation Lifesaver also sponsors the Great Crossing Collision Investigation, a program that teaches officers necessary steps to complete an investigation of a train collision. Firefighters also get training in how to deal safely with a fire on or near a train.

"We want to keep the public safe and we want to keep those who are keeping us safe, safe," he said.

E-mail: astowell@desnews.com