Welcome! We kick off this series with a focus on Rail Safety. Rob Scarpino, Caltrain’s Deputy Director of Rail Infrastructure, talks about the agency’s efforts to improve its crossings to keep people safe. Nancy Sheehan of California’s Operation Lifesaver closes the hour with a conversation around rail safety awareness. Join us for some Wheel Talk!
DAN LIEBERMAN: Welcome to Wheel Talk.
ALEX EISENHART: A show where we dive into the inner workings of Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County transportation authority. We’re your friendly neighborhood public servants and hosts, Alex Eisenhart.
LIEBERMAN: And Dan Lieberman. Join us as we take a wonky ride through the world of transportation and the work we do to keep you moving.
EISENHART: And here we are, episode one. This is me trying to sound authentic, as though this not a pre-recorded show and this is going to be fantastic. Right Dan?
LIEBERMAN: As you can tell, he’s not self-conscious about this at all.
EISENHART: Not at all. Look at me improvising. No, here we are. We are truly excited about this. Welcome to Wheel Talk. We’re going to go into a whole lot of real exciting topics, at least what we think are exciting, about transportation.
LIEBERMAN: I think everyone thinks it’s exciting, right? Isn’t everyone really excited about transportation policy? Everyone I talk to is. Or they just quickly stop talking to me.
EISENHART: So why are we doing a podcast? Well, one, we though it would be really fun. But more importantly, we want to share our story in a way that is not traditional because a lot of these solutions that we’re going to have to take to solve the transportation problems of the Bay Area are frankly out of the box, non-traditional.
LIEBERMAN: And for SamTrans, Caltrain and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, there’s really some interesting stuff going on. With Caltrain, it’s currently going through its electrification process. It will be launching electrified revenue service in 2022. We’ve also just laid out a business plan, which is basically looking at the next 20 years and how the rail system is going to grow.
SamTrans is doing some exciting stuff. We’ve launched an on-demand program out in Pacifica. We’ve launched an express bus going from Foster City up to San Francisco. Haven’t had those for about a decade. So there’s some really cool stuff going on, and well we need a way to talk about it.
EISENHART: Yeah, it’s cool and it’s often complicated, which is why a lot of the stuff tends to get a little caught in the weeds here, if you will. So we wanted a way to convey this information that was interesting, a little weird, and informative in a way that you can kind of understand, okay, this is where my tax dollars is going. This is what the future of transportation infrastructure in the Bay Area is going to look like.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah. And for those hard core rail fans and bus geeks out there that just really want to dive into those technical details and find out everything there is to know, yeah, we’ll be talking about how a train washer works and all sorts of other crazy nonsense.
EISENHART: Train washes. I didn’t even know they existed until I got here.
LIEBERMAN: They’re really big.
EISENHART: I just thought they hoped that it would rain.
LIEBERMAN: Slightly more complicated than that.
EISENHART: You know what I mean, like going through 79 miles an hours of just rain.
LIEBERMAN: All I’m saying, there’s a lot of weird little ins and outs of running a rail agency and a bus agency and a transportation authority and [indiscernible] [00:02:49] transit service and what else? Now we have a podcast as well, so we kind of do everything over here.
EISENHART: Yeah, we’re really excited to start this journey, and we hope that you enjoy the ride. Now, let’s jump into this month’s topic.
LIEBERMAN: What’s this month’s topic Alex?
EISENHART: This month’s episode is all about rail safety, which is fitting because it’s September, which is rail safety month.
LIEBERMAN: It’s almost like we planned it or something.
EISENHART: It’s almost like we did exactly that. You’re welcome. Now, in order to talk about rail safety and Caltrain, we really do need to go all the way back to the time of Lincoln when these tracks were first laid. Back then, this was mainly just farmland. There weren’t nearly as many people and so the tracks were pretty much made at grade level, which is ground level.
Fast forward to today; you’ve got millions of people living along the rail corridor. Lots of cars, roads haven’t been built over the tracks, which create at-grade crossings. This is not that ideal for traffic and certainly not for safety, especially for people who violate the rules of the tracks. So this has created some challenges that Caltrain is working on and has been historically to try to remedy.
LIEBERMAN: Some of that remedy came in the form of $3.5 million put into safety improvements at some of those at-grade crossings. We’re going to be talking to our Deputy Director of Railroad Infrastructure Maintenance, Rob Scarpino, about some of those fixes. We’re also going to be talking to Nancy Sheehan, the state coordinator for California’s Operation Lifesaver. This is a rail safety organization that Caltrain has partnered with for quite some time. Just talking about a little common sense safety tips that will keep you safe around the rails.
EISENHART: It’s a really important topic to talk about, really for public safety, but also as a reflection of Caltrain’s goals to create a more reliable and safer system for everybody.
LIEBERMAN: So let’s kick things off with Rob Scarpino. Thanks for being here Rob.
ROB SCARPINO: No problem.
LIEBERMAN: You want to tell the people a little bit about yourself?
SCARPINO: Yeah, so I started my railroad career in 1979. I worked for Southern Pacific, which was the predecessor to Caltrain. I started as a junior blue-printer, whatever that is. That’s a guy that makes blueprints in the reproduction room. I worked for about three and a half years for the SP during the Reaganomics. 1982 I got laid off, and didn’t think I was ever going to go back to the railroad. Was gone for about five years. I went back as a draftsman. At that time there was a lot of sales going on for the sale of the Southern Pacific. So I went back for what was supposed to be about a year, and I ended up working another eight years or so for the SP.
I became a deputy engineer of standards and then eventually became the engineer of standards. Around the end of the 90s, the Union Pacific bought the SP for somewhere around $5 billion at the time, which was a lot of money back then. Basically my job moved to Omaha, Nebraska.
They tried to tell me that Omaha was a great place. I don’t have anything against Omaha, it just didn’t have any of favorite football or baseball teams or an ocean.
LIEBERMAN: Priority’s there.
SCARPINO: Exactly. So and me being a native San Franciscan, it was going to be hard for me to leave. I decided that my job wasn’t that important, my career wasn’t that important, and decided to stay in the Bay Area. So then I came to work actually for a consulting group that was the GEC, the General Engineering Contractor at that time, for the agency. There’s about three people in the engineering department at that time. So there wasn’t a lot of work going on. At that time, the Ralston Holly Harbor grade separation was underway where they grade separated three locations between Belmont and San Carlos.
EISENHART: Which we’ll talk about today.
LIEBERMAN: You can see one of them from right here actually. You people can’t, but we can.
SCARPINO: So I actually saw some of that. So people throughout the years have kind of said hey, have you ever heard of this project? And I say, yeah, I was actually here.
I came in as a consultant for a couple of years, and then I was hired just about 20 years ago now where I was an engineer of standards, if you will, at that time. We were developing the standards for which everything was built as far as the track was concerned. Then did different jobs throughout my career as like a project manager. Became a program manager, and then now a deputy director of the infrastructure group.
LIEBERMAN: Fantastic. Glad to have you and your expertise here today. Getting into the meat of things; but we’re going to be talking a lot about rail safety today as we’ve mentioned. Just to start off, could you give us an idea of where sort of these standards come from on the federal or state level, and what we’re supposed to do, the standards we’re supposed to keep our rails to?
EISENHART: How does rail safety work?
SCARPINO: Okay. It’s a combination of a lot of different things. The FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration, the CPUC, the California Public Utilities Commission defined guidelines associated with what we do and how we do things. But a lot of the improvements that we’ve done over the last 20 years, especially at the grade crossing, maybe more in particular the last 15 years, was we worked in conjunction with the CPUC, the FRA to make our at-grade crossings a lot safer. Not only for vehicular traffic, but for the general public and for bicyclists. If you’ve seen some of the old grade crossings, the only thing that you would see would be they would be paved, right? From that, we now have the gates for the signalized crossing that have always been a part of our crossings, but now they have, there’s gates for the pedestrians, which basically block pedestrians from crossing when a train is in the circuit or on an approach.
These swing gates were instrumental and developed really with SCCRA on down in Southern California and our formal chief engineer, who came up with the concept with the CPUC, and now at the 42 at-grade crossings, you see these swing gates, which basically protect not only pedestrians, but folks on bikes and stuff. They over time, they’ve added a bunch of different things like tactile tile for people with sight issues. Also…
LIEBERMAN: That’s like the little yellow floor with the bumps.
SCARPINO: Yeah. And you’ll see them all along our platforms. They’re just for people with impairments to their sight. It gives them a guideline. Also a lot of signage was added to give people ample warning and basically guiding them in which path to go. A lot of the fencing and channelization has been developed over time. Some of it’s kind of based on trial and error. Not everything is like okay, this is how we’re going to do it, and then we implement it. There was some design changes along the way. Hey, this works good; no, that doesn’t work good. Let’s rethink some of this stuff.
As you see today on all of our grade crossings, I think the majority of them have swing gates. Then also, which does not get addressed very much, but we have 12 pedestrian crossings. These are areas that are within the station, so they allow for you to safely, our customers to safely cross from one side of the track to the other. In conjunction with that, we’ve put in things like center track fences so that nobody can go and run from one track to the other. Because back in the day where there was no fence in between the tracks, people would run around in front of locomotives continually all the time. The PUC came up with a regulation that any of these crossings within a station area, you’ll see them across the board, the center track fences have to run approximately 100 feet beyond the end of the platform.
SCARPINO: So slowly by surely, some of those improvements have been made. Back to the grade crossings themselves, some of these islands have been added so you’re basically channelizing the way in which cars are driving. And the same thing with the fencing, as I said, on channelization of the pedestrians so that you’re giving them a guide that you can’t be on the street; you have to be on the sidewalk, but you need to stay behind the gate there.
EISENHART: For a little more context. In June 2018 Caltrain announced that it was investing $3.5 million of funds into rail safety improvements. Projects were done ahead of schedule, as I understand it, and completed in January of 2019 of this year. Can you talk a little bit about what work was done as a result of this investment?
SCARPINO: Yeah. A lot of these things were similar to what I previously mentioned where tactile tiles put in, some street mediums. A big factor in there is the lighting. It’s important that you have a well-lit area. As you guys might know, we have four grade crossings in the city of Palo Alto. We’re continually having people disoriented going across the crossings and turning down our tracks. We are looking at alternative ways that we can make some improvements outside of the box, outside of what we’ve already done. With that $3.5 million, I think one of my associates was the PM on that, but there was specific monies in which you could only do certain amount of things with those funds. So anytime it’s federal, state, local monies, there’s stipulations in which you can and cannot use.
But we typically like, for lighting, that’s typically on the city. We’ve certainly seen that the addition of LED lights at these areas helps people give a better idea – they can see better. We actually did a test, me and one of my associates, just trying to look at is there a way, just using a MapQuest if you will or whatever, whatever you have on your phone, just trying to see, trying to understand how people were thinking that I’m supposed to make a right here or am I supposed to make a right past the railroad tracks; not on the railroad track.
LIEBERMAN: Don’t be Michael Scott ladies and gentlemen. Don’t just do what the app tells you to do, please.
SCARPINO: Yeah. It’s a big matter of concern to us that we have to figure out a way in conjunction with the CPUC, the FRA, how the heck we’re going to get this stuff done. We don’t want – nobody here wants to hit any car. Nobody here wants to hit anyone. I would say that we’re almost in a crisis mode right now. In the last, since the first of August, we’ve had six incidents in which we’ve hit a couple of cars. We had a couple of trespasser strikes. However that ends up working out, where it falls, what category…
EISENHART: If it was intentional or not?
SCARPINO: Yeah, if it was intentional or not. But we have to, as an agency, figure out other alternative ways and work with our constituents. Maybe we’re going to have to get more of our public affairs folks involved and talk with the legislators in order to put us in a position that we can make these things, improve these crossings on a more timely basis. The three to four years for some of this stuff to take place; I’m not going to live that long. I think it’s really important that you kind of grab the bull, if you will, by the horns and try to figure out ways to fix some of this stuff.
EISENHART: Like three to four years?
SCARPINO: Well, three to four years, five to ten years. A lot of these things – and I’m not saying for what we’re doing.
EISENHART: I guess [indiscernible] [00:17:08] you’re not going to live that long?
LIEBERMAN: You need to stick around a little longer.
SCARPINO: I will. Where I’m going is, it’s just…
EISENHART: It takes a long time to do a lot of that stuff.
SCARPINO: Yeah, and it’s frustrating for me and several of the people that have kind of had a little longer railroad career; nobody wants to end their railroad career with something happening at a crossing, at a station, etc. I mean we haven’t, we’ve done all these improvements to make things better. The suicide prevention signs that we put up every 528 feet about 10 years ago were part of keeping people off the tracks. We’ve done a tremendous amount of…
EISENHART: Those are signs that have the crisis hotlines on them for folks who are in crisis.
SCARPINO: That’s correct. We’re trying to do our part, if you will. The one thing that we’ve done successfully is putting in a lot of right-of-way fencing to basically keep people out. But once you go back to the stations and once you go back to the 42 grade crossings, those are all entry points.
EISENHART: It’s unfortunately relatively easy to…yeah.
SCARPINO: So, and as I mentioned to you guys earlier, I was in Europe earlier this week, and lot of these railroads in Europe, they’re in a sealed corridor. We don’t have that. We don’t have what BART has. They’re in a sealed corridor. Not only just underground, but there’s no at-grade crossings. We certainly need to be grade separating as much as we can. I think that’s the only way that we’re going to get away from a lot of this stuff.
LIEBERMAN: I guess a good question. Just so our audience is in the loop; can you explain what a grade crossing and a grade separation are, what those terms mean?
SCARPINO: So the grade crossing would be anywhere where a vehicle crosses over the track. Typically at any intersection with the railroad, there’s flashers and gates that protect not only the vehicles when a train is coming. There’s a certain amount of warning time programed in so the gates will drop and protect the vehicle from crossing the track. Then same thing, the pedestrian crossings are next to where the vehicles are along the sidewalk.
As far as a grade separation is concerned, what you see is typically some kind of sloped wall along that will rise like somewhere between 15 to 20 feet up in the air. The rail and the streets are completely separated. Either the vehicle traffic now goes underneath the railroad or it’s a fly-over where the traffic goes over. What you see as far as underneath would be like Holly Street out here in San Carlos. Then fly-overs you would see similar up in South San Francisco, Grand Avenue, where the traffic comes right up over the railroad.
As you guys know, we’re doing a couple of grade separations right now. Probably the most important one that we’ve done over the last 10 years is in San Bruno. You guys probably weren’t around for that. San Bruno where we grade separated three at-grade crossings that were at the time, the top 10 we had two of the grade crossings, which was San Bruno Avenue and San Mateo Avenue were in the top 10 of the state of the most dangerous. And we had plenty of…
EISENHART: Just based on numbers of impacts?
SCARPINO: Yeah, just based on incidents, near misses that occurred at these locations. Really, the railroad was developed in these farmlands if you will, and then towns developed on both sides.
EISENHART: It’s dating back to like the 1800s.
SCARPINO: Yeah. The Caltrain right-of-way is basically on a 150-year old right-of-way. So it’s like one of the oldest in the states.
LIEBERMAN: A lot of the challenges we have are just because these rails were built when some of these towns had like two guys and a cow in them. Now it’s a city of 100,000 people.
SCARPINO: Yeah. And certainly the ones, going back to the San Bruno ones, so we did San Mateo Avenue, San Bruno Avenue and Angus Avenue. We should be using that kind of as a model. I think that grade separation project, it took nearly like four years. I worked on that project with the city in the development of it. It was 10 years in advance of us even starting some of that stuff. Funding, how you going to get the funding, or are you going to get local money? Are you going to be able to get some federal money? Are you going to be able to get some transportation authority money? It’s all about the money.
I think in general in a path going forward, any grade separation, we’re not going to be in a position where can just say, okay, we’re going to one grade separation. Or we’re going to close one crossing. So we need to be thinking outside the box that if we’re going to do a grade separation, you got to be eliminating at least two or three. Because these projects costs a lot of money. They take a lot of time. They take a lot of effort.
Then you have to always be thinking about, we have run service while those projects are going on. Because there will become a point where you can do construction while you’re operating, but at some point you’re going to have cut over from the existing operating line to the new line. There’s a lot of challenges there that I think maybe our customers aren’t aware of. Maybe they get impacted by a single track or they’re train is traveling in a different direction than normal. But there’s certainly a lot of time and effort that goes into making sure that not only is the project safe, but our customers are safe and we’re able to execute some of this work.
EISENHART: Because even with the 25th Avenue grade separation they’re doing right now, they’re building the separate structure where the new tracks going to be on next to the current existing tracks.
SCARPINO: That’s correct. What we call that is a MSE wall. The mechanically stabilized embankment. That’s where the grade separation will go. Obviously, 25th Avenue has been a real bad crossing for a number of years. I saw a tractor/trailer get hit there probably about 10-12 years ago. The truck was making a delivery to – there’s an actual lumber yard just a little bit west of the tracks there. The guy was loaded with, I think it was teak, which is a real hard wood. There was teak for several hundred feet south and north of that.
LIEBERMAN: It’s maybe a hard wood. It’s not hard enough to stop a million pound train.
SCARPINO: No. This is going to have to be super hard in order to do that. That’s not going to happen for sure.
EISENHART: This might be a little obvious, but I think it might good to just highlight some of the challenges of grade crossings in terms just safety and traffic logistics. The big ones that I understand at least for vehicles are if someone is on the tracks in front of a red light and there’s nowhere to go. Then if the guards come down…what do they call it?
SCARPINO: It’s a crossing arm. If you notice out there, we put a lot of signs. A lot of these signs are developed again with the CPUC about stop here on a flashing red light. This is where you stay behind this line and stop. Certainly, we’ve worked with our transit police, which is the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. They’ve actually done a great job in helping us make the motorists aware of what’s going on. They’ve done independent surveillance out there. I think they’ve done a couple at Broadway where we hit a vehicle just this past week. Within a period of an hour and a half they had given out 58 tickets. People are very interested in getting out of Broadway and getting to the freeway or getting to El Camino or getting California Avenue. It’s scary. People become, they’re more interested in fulfilling what it is that they need to do at this moment, and they don’t know what to do.
I think one of the things that I think our safety department and the communications have done a pretty good job on is talking to the public and getting the word out. But it’s a little bit different out here in California. I think certainly if you’ve been back East, people grew up around trains back there. But maybe not so much in California because everybody was enamored with having a car. There wasn’t a lot of people riding around on public transportation.
I remember being on Muni as a kid, and my grandfather was a conductor back in the day. It’s important to, I guess we have to re-educate everyone about being around an operating railroad. People still think that the train is going to be able to stop and stuff. People need to be in a position that hey, stay behind this line. If you’re seeing the gates dropping, don’t accelerate through there because you’re going to create problems. I think through design efforts, we can kind of make some more improvements. We’re just certainly not there yet.
LIEBERMAN: Another point that I think is worth bringing up that’s important, it’s not only are these grade separations are much better for safety purposes, but also for traffic flow. When electrified services launched in 2022, and when some of the things laid in the business plan start coming about, we’re going to start seeing trains come through a lot more frequently. If that stops traffic every time a train rolls through, that’s going to become a very serious problem in a lot of places.
SCARPINO: Yeah, absolutely. So now we’re typically – the frequency’s not extremely high at this point. But it certainly with the electrification project implemented, you’re going to see the frequency every 10-15 minutes, which is more of a style of BART where you just show up and hop on the train and away you go.
LIEBERMAN: Great for the service, but definitely a complication as far as grade crossings go.
EISENHART: What’s the biggest hurdle to getting more grade separations throughout the corridor? And what are we doing to try to just get more on the rails?
SCARPINO: I think you have to – every city throughout the corridor is now enamored with the grade separations. But it’s how much work can we do and still provide service to 92 trains per day? We’re at capacity right now, meaning that we have an electrification project going on. We have the grade separation project up at 25th Avenue and San Mateo, and then we have work going on at South City. So we are stretched. So we can’t do another grade separation for probably at least three to four years. I guess the next one in the que would be up at Broadway in Burlingame, which is, again, one of the worst ones in the state. But I don’t know how much more, so like we’re not probably going to be adding any tracks in the not too distant future if high speed rail – I’m not sure – there’s questions about that, if they will ever come onto the property and expand to third and fourth tracks.
So typically we’re a two-track railroad. We do have a couple of segments that have four tracks. But certainly the biggest challenge is the amount of time that it takes for the design. You come up with a plan, you have a 35% [indiscernible] [0:31:44], you get to 65%, 95%, and then you have to develop a package that’s worth a couple of Xerox boxes full of documents, and then you got to put the thing out to bid and hope like heck that you get a good contractor. And it takes a lot of people. You got your communications folks, you got your outreach folks, you have engineering, you got purchasing, you have all these entities that have to be involved. And then you finally get these projects out. Sometimes the money doesn’t flow exactly with the timing. It’s all about timing. Again, you can probably do one or two or these simultaneously, but they have to be at opposite ends of the railroad. You can’t do them typically back to back because of single tracking issues, etc.
EISENHART: Rob Scarpino, that you so much for being on our show and talking with us about rail safety today.
SCARPINO: Okay, that’s much.
LIEBERMAN: And if any of our listeners want to cut us a $11 billion check so we can pay for all these grade separations, feel free to Tweet at us; we’ll figure it out from there.
SCARPINO: I think we would probably take ten and a half if eleven is not on the table.
LIEBERMAN: You’re a good negotiator Rob. I appreciate that.
EISENHART: We’re going to continue today’s show with our next guest, the Executive Director of California Operation Lifesaver, Nancy Sheehan. We’re sitting in a beautiful office in Sacramento in California Operation Lifesaver’s offices. Nancy, thank you so much for being here with us.
NANCY SHEEHAN: Thank you so much for having me. I’m grateful to you and to Caltrain for inviting us to attend.
EISENHART: I wanted to start by maybe introducing you a little bit; your background and what brought you into the work that you do for Operation Lifesaver.
SHEEHAN: Absolutely. I actually came into this through a very good friend of mine who thought I would fit well with the program. I worked for AT&T for a very long time as a regional manager. Did a lot of critical customer complaints and worked with them. Then I came into contact with a friend who was passionate about rail safety and the loss of life that was happening. She thought that I would have a passion for it. I was introduced to it. I learned about it from her and several others. And I became passionate about it myself. So here I am.
EISENHART: Let’s talk a little bit about your role with California Operation Lifesaver. What exactly do you do for the organization?
SHEEHAN: I’m the executive director as you mentioned. What I do is a little bit of everything. Unlike many other programs, we’re a non-profit, an independent non-profit organization here in California. Just so you know, our mission is to save lives and change dangerous behaviors around railroad tracks. That is our effort to do that throughout the state of California. As the executive director, I lead the program, I do a little bit of everything. I work throughout the entire state. I work with our team of trained volunteers and presenters. I do all of the ins and outs of the whole organization working with the California Operation Lifesaver board. It takes many of us to put that together. But there’s just a few of us that are actually running the program, and I lead it.
LIEBERMAN: Operation Lifesaver has been around for about 40 some odd years at this point. Can you talk a little bit of how it’s been effective and how it’s been able to deal with some of the challenges regarding rail safety?
SHEEHAN: Absolutely. California actually is one of the leaders in the programs that are out there in real safety education in the United States. We have one of the most active programs throughout the United States because of how busy we are and the challenges we face, which I can get into a little bit later. We incorporate a variety of efforts and methods and outreach to utilize and raise awareness so that the public can become aware of how to be safe near railroad tracks. We participate in community events, presentations provided by our authorized presenters, and we do things with our rail safety partners. Without our rail safety partners, our campaigns can be very challenging. So we’re grateful to partners like Caltrain, who support us and bring us forward to give our message.
EISENHART: A lot of the information and campaigns that the organization puts out, in a more ideal world, would be more common knowledge and would be something obvious. But there clearly is a need to continue to inform and remind the public about how to be safe around the tracks. Can you go into some of the more common messages that you do have to put out there in order to achieve that goal?
SHEEHAN: Absolutely. I’d love to, at some point, talk a little bit about rail safety tips with you as well. As Dan mentioned, Idaho Operation Lifesaver started the program itself in 1972. It was during a time in the United States when incidents had risen above 12,000 annually. That’s 12,000 fatalities annually and incidents annually. So they developed the rail safety education program, and the numbers since then have dropped dramatically. I’m mean we’re down to under 2,000 a year. But that does not mean our issues have ended there.
Because while the numbers have improved, here in California we still face the challenge of changing dangerous behaviors for trespass and grade cross. We rank number one with trespass casualties and number two with grade crossing incidents. We are number one in fatalities in both of those. So our messaging, we try to evolve and work with that to reach the public with ‘stay off, stay away, stay alive’, ‘look, listen and live’ and messages like that.
LIEBERMAN: Nancy, what are the things that everyone should keep in mind whenever they’re near live train tracks?
SHEEHAN: Great question Dan. There are so many critical things that we face and challenges we face in our society right now, and so I’m going to mention just a few things that I think we can do. These are a short six that I talk about that come to mind. That is that it takes a mile or more for a train to stop that’s traveling over 55 miles an hour. That’s 18 football fields. By the time an engineer sees a person or a vehicle on the tracks, it’s often too late for them to stop the train. For people out there, please be aware that you need to always be where the trains always have the right of way, and that you need to yield to the train whether on foot, whether you’re on a bike or whether you’re in a car.
In addition, walking along or cutting across tracks is illegal and it’s dangerous and it’s potentially deadly. So we want to ask that you stay off, stay away, stay alive. It’s not worth risking your life. In addition to that, never use train tracks as shortcut. Use the designated crossings. That’s the only safe and legal place to cross. Those are some pedestrian issues. Again, I mentioned that a train; never try to beat a train to a crossing. I talked about the fact that trains always have the right of way. A 12 million pound train versus a 3,000 pound vehicle is like your vehicle running over a can of soda.
LIEBERMAN: I heard a retired conductor point out that in addition to the right of way, there’s also the right of weight, which also something the train wins by a substantial margin.
SHEEHAN: That is a good, great comparison. It’s true. People don’t realize. Very often we’re standing at the side of a track and we’re watching a train coming. If you ever picture, as you’re watching an airplane come, and you think it’s moving really slowly. It looks like it’s lumbering along. It’s the same concept with that heavy train. It’s maybe moving faster than you think. So never take chances. One of the biggest things I think that we face in our society are distractions. We are a distracted society. So you need to stay alert at all times when you’re near railroad tracks. No texting, no headphones or other distractions that could have you be distracted enough that you don’t hear or see an approaching train.
EISENHART: I think what is often surprisingly frightening is that even if say you don’t have your headphones – and I’m 25, so my generation, we’re plugged in in the ears. But even if you don’t have headphones in… I’m realizing there’s a lot of situations where you might think there’s not a train coming because you already see one stopped. At a lot of grade crossings, the grade crossings are designed to activate where the arms go down as a train is approaching, even though it’s stopping at a station if it’s not actually going to cross over that crossing. So they think, okay, it was just going down because of that train, but it stopped, I can go. They don’t realize, especially with passing trains, that’s another one coming at 79 miles hours just past it.
SHEEHAN: Exactly. That’s another great point. You should always be aware that another train could be coming from either direction on another track. You do not cross until the gates are all the way up, the lights have stopped flashing, and make sure that there’s no other train coming.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, particularly when there is one train in front, it creates what’s known as a sound shadow. You would think you would hear that train behind it moving at 79 miles an hour, but you don’t.
EISENHART: Even without headphones in?
SHEEHAN: That’s right. It’s so often. We see it in these videos, people walking along, texting, doing things on their phone and not even looking up. Your eyes need to be up, you need to be aware, you need to be looking at your surroundings and knowing where you are and aware that the train may be coming.
EISENHART: You had mentioned off air earlier an interesting statistic about the most common incidents that do happen on the rails, and the typical speed of the train.
SHEEHAN: Very often people think that because a train is moving 79 or 80 miles an hours that that’s why the train is moving too fast. The statistics show that more incidents happen with trains traveling 30 miles per hour or less. I think it’s because people A, are distracted, and B, they think that they can beat the train. It’s a losing proposition. You should never, ever try to beat the train.
EISENHART: You have an interesting perspective on rail safety, which is not exclusive to California. It’s not exclusive to this country. But there are certain factors that make the challenge of informing people about how to be safe around the rails. That challenge is unique in California compared to other places. Can you maybe talk a little bit about that?
SHEEHAN: Absolutely. There may be busy corridors back East or along the Midwest lines in some areas. The challenge that California faces with over 10,000 grade crossings in this state, is the amazing demographics that we have and what we face in every county. Where many places back East or in other locations may have one specific area that they’re having issues with, we have over 26 counties out of 33 that have trespass casualties just in 2018 alone. Those 26 trespass casualties, there was at least one casualty that’s an injury or a fatality, all the way up to 16 per county. In the top 18 counties in California, we have counties that have anywhere from four to 16, with an average about five to six casualties per each one of those counties.
EISENHART: Is that over the year?
SHEEHAN: That’s just 2018. That was just our 2018. Over a four-year period, our numbers are much higher than any other state. I think it’s our demographics. I think that we are so broad-based, and our population is high. We do have a lot of train traffic. It’s not just one area to identify in California. It’s across our state.
EISENHART: This might be kind of a strange question because this is what California Operation Lifesaver does, but systemically on a large scale, what is the best way to address this? What are some of the maybe reasons why it’s so common here just in terms of, is it a lack of awareness because of the fact that there’s less exposure to railroads here compared to the East coast perhaps?
SHEEHAN: I think the challenges are broad-based. I think it’s a difficult question to answer. But I think it’s broad-based. We have homeless across our entire state. We have one of the biggest homeless issues. And sadly that impacts the railroads across our state. We have a distracted society I think. Not that we’re any more distracted than any other state, but I think it’s epidemic through our entire state. We’re very busy. People are constantly on the go and not paying attention. So I think that that’s another issue. Then it’s just a matter of awareness as well. It’s critical for us to raise awareness on a constant basis. It’s not just a simple we raise awareness one time. We go into an area and just do it once. This is an ongoing message that needs to stay present at all times.
EISENHART: What about educational institutions? Something like a stop, drop and roll is something that kids learn at a very very young age. Is there any partnership happening with educational institutions to educate folks at a really young age?
SHEEHAN: Absolutely. We actually work – our message is for everyone. So we go in and we work with law enforcement, first responders, all the different audiences – county, community, governments. But also at the school level. We start at pre-school and then we work our way up, and our message is tailored for every age. So we do all the elementary schools, the high schools and even the colleges. We do one at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo every year. They are now currently a rail safe college. We present to them every year, and their leadership takes back the message to their incoming students every year.
EISENHART: That’s wonderful. I think the other sort of educational piece I’m curious about is the DMV. Getting your license to drive in this state involves knowing a lot of the different safety risks that go into driving a motorized vehicle. Do you think that there’s opportunity for growth and improvement on that level so that when people do get their license that they’re more aware?
SHEEHAN: There is. Actually they have added information about rail safety, on about railroad and what to do around the railroad tracks in the DMV handbook. So it is in there. Actually I believe Caltrain was a partner in making that happen. So we’re grateful to their effort and what they did to get that into the DMV handbook. That’s valuable. Then we also have rail partners who are actually doing advertising in the DMV offices so that the videos are running while people are waiting for their licenses.
LIEBERMAN: Next time we’re at the DMV, you can thank us for that. Not sure if that’s going to happen, but good to know.
EISENHART: If there are schools, organizations that do want to somehow get involved in educating more people about rail safety, what resources are available to the general public?
SHEEHAN: Great question. Actually you can reach out to California Operation Lifesaver at www.cawell.us and we’re happy to reach out, and you can actually put it in the questionnaire to become a presenter and/or to have presentations. We actually started California Operation Lifesaver; started a school resolution so that a school community can come in, Department of Education come in and provide an actual resolution that they plan to give rail safety education in their schools every year, annually, and in different formats. So whether it’s a presentation, whether it’s a school lunch, whether it’s sending messaging home, whether it’s announcements, they have opportunities to do all of those things.
LIEBERMAN: Any recent success stories you want to call out?
SHEEHAN: Absolutely. I want to recognize Cal Poly again. Mainly because they’re the only college that started the program of trying to become a rail safe college. And how they work with it within their community and have spread it; we have seen a dramatic drop in near miss and incidents as well. Then currently in Merced, we are actually working with their school, who recently, they’ve had some incidents and they are taking it firsthand into their schools to work with us to provide rail safety education annually. And we’re currently working throughout all of their schools giving presentations. Into that, we’re also going into the city.
So I’d like to actually kind of tag onto that and say that that’s it’s not just California Operation Lifesaver that gets this done. It’s our rail safety partners, it is community involvement. We need the community to be involved. That’s how we raise rail awareness, rail safety awareness. It’s also how we can impact change. It is working together through our communities and through our rail safety partners that we can change the numbers.
LIEBERMAN: You mentioned a rail safe campus. What is that exactly?
SHEEHAN: I would say that’s something that we would do individually for each campus. But in Cal Poly’s case, what they have done is they worked with California Operation Lifesaver every year during WOW week, which is their week of welcome. They invite us in, we give them a presentation to their WOW week leaders. Those are student leaders. We provide a presentation. They take the message back to all of the 7,000 plus students that are incoming. In the meantime, they are sending the message out on their kiosks, on their letter boards, the reader boards, and through different messaging throughout the campus each year. They take it not just – we happen to do it during rail safety month, but they take it throughout the whole year.
EISENHART: When we spoke with Rob Scarpino earlier in this episode, he was very clear that a huge barrier or challenge in rail safety is, as you mentioned as well, the high number of grade crossings throughout the state versus grade separations. Given the need to improve infrastructure and secure funding for that to happen, I imagine that’s something you would track fairly closely. Are you seeing any sort of shift in awareness or funds or any sort of light at the end of the tunnel here?
SHEEHAN: Yeah. It remains a struggle. The grade separation is always an issue. While we don’t particularly take on the engineering because we’re not the engineering specialists, we support any engineering that enhances our railroad crossings. So the challenge still remains the amount, the cost to have separated crossings. It’s almost cost prohibitive. It’s a challenge that we continue to face. From California’s perspective, we support that and hope that that can change, and we work with communities who are interested in that and get them connected with the right people that can help them with that. Then other than that, it’s education about what they need to do at a crossing.
One of the things that I might add here, that I might mention, and I’m sure that this is a challenge that Caltrain faces as well. But I want to draw attention to the ENS sign, the Emergency Notification Sign. I don’t know if you ever get stuck, this would be a message when we’re taking about grade crossings. That if you ever have a vehicle stuck on the tracks, what do you do? What does someone do if you get stuck on the tracks? It may sound simple, but it’s not. People don’t think that the train is going to – they think they can get out in time. The reality is, you need to get out of the car, get away from the tracks, and locate the blue emergency sign. It’s a blue emergency sign. Call the number on that sign and give them that number. It’s like giving your home address. If you can’t find the sign, obviously don’t take time to do. Call 9-1-1. But you should know that if you get stuck on train tracks somewhere, get out of your vehicle and get away from the tracks.
LIEBERMAN: The important thing also about the blue sign that you mentioned, if you get out and call that number and there isn’t a train that’s a minute away, they will alert the engineer and stop the train before it crushes your car. You really want to get out and find that quickly rather than fiddling around for five minutes and pretending you know how to fix things. You need to stop the train from moving. That’s really the priority there.
SHEEHAN: Right. And you see it in videos. People trying to push their car off the tracks. You do not have that kind of time. Get away. Even if you don’t see the train coming, you need to get away from the tracks.
EISENHART: Nancy, is there anything else you’d like to say to our listeners?
SHEEHAN: I just want to share two quick items just to kind of bring home the issues we face in California and how it’s different to your question. Recently the Federal Railroad Administration, the FRA, did a trespass prevention strategy report to congress. In that they identified the top ten counties in the Unites States where most pedestrian trespass casualties occurred. And California has six out of the ten. It identifies once more what we face here in California.
Then the last thing is, I just want to mention, the other thing I want to talk about is our digital campaigns. One of the things we are doing is a digital campaign where we fence off digitally areas that are receiving ads that have high incidents or high near miss issues. We do the digital campaign, digital ad campaign. Last year we were able to run two of those. We were able to reach over 14 million people in the state of California with that messaging. We’re going to be running it again in September, rail safety month. I want to say that September, rail safety month is very important, and we have a lot of work to do. We work all year long. So we’re going to be running another ad campaign with a goal to reach about five to six million with that.
Then finally, I just want to say that we have a special campaign that we run in California, and it’s Save Lives, Tell Five. It’s one of the ways we grassroots try to get our community to be involved. If you want to help save lives, tell five family members or friends. Ask those five to tell five, and those five to tell five. Ask them to obey the laws at railroad tracks and stay off, stay away, stay alive and share the message. Save Lives, Tell Five.
EISENHART: Nancy, thank you so much for being on our show.
SHEEHAN: Thank you so much for having me. Greatly appreciate it.
EISENHART: That’s our show folks. Tune in next month when we talk about the exciting changes that are coming as a result of Measure W. Thank you so much to our guests Rob Scarpino and Nancy Sheehan for talking with us about rail safety.
LIEBERMAN: This episode is produced in partnership with Operation Lifesaver. Operation Lifesaver administers grant funding on behalf of the Federal Transit Administration to increase awareness about the importance of rail safety education. Please visit www.oli.org for additional information.