The Oklahoman

Deaths, injuries near railroads in Oklahoma City prompt police study

- Josh Dulaney

Citing recent deaths and injuries near railroads, the Oklahoma City Police Department is set to embark on a study to improve safety near railways throughout the city. The department is seeking a $120,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transporta­tion Federal Railroad Administra­tion – expected to be authorized Tuesday by the City Council – to identify vulnerable rail locations and pedestrian behaviors that lead to injury or death. From 2017 to 2019, the administra­tion identified eight trespass incidents in Oklahoma City that led to injury or death which were not a result of a suicide attempt, according to documents supporting the grant request. In 2018, a scholarshi­p football player from the University of Central Oklahoma crawled under a stopped train to cross the tracks. When the train started to move, the player was run over and his left foot was cut off. Police cited a failure to enforce trespassin­g laws as a driving factor in the number of railroad property trespassin­g over the last decade. In supporting documents, police wrote that two years ago the Oklahoma City Police Department and the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads worked together on a three-month project that led to 368 citations. Authoritie­s say between 60 and 80 trains may travel through Oklahoma City in a single day. The amount of train activity, coupled with the geography of the tracks in relation to the city, leaves Oklahoma City “far more vulnerable than other cities to injuries or death as a result of trespass on railroad tracks,” authoritie­s say. A key contributo­r to railroad trespass incidents is a growing number of homeless encampment­s near rail lines, authoritie­s say. During enforcemen­t events, officers followed trespasser­s across railroad tracks and into homeless camps located next to railroad tracks. Authoritie­s say about 90% of the railroad tracks in the city lack a physical barrier – such as fences and natural or engineered barriers – that would prevent trespasser access. Several locations in the city have stretches of track that require a pedestrian to travel a long distance to safely cross the railroad tracks at a controlled intersecti­on. A Union Pacific line running east and west through the northwest side has no barriers and does not provide safe access for pedestrian crossing for about one mile at a time. Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which runs north and south through the heart of the city, has the same issues, according to authoritie­s. During observatio­n operations, officers have seen people walking across or directly on railroad tracks “with no regard for the danger posed by trains,” according to authoritie­s. Another danger is freight trains making frequent stops in the city to swap crews or adjust a train’s schedule. The stops pose a risk to pedestrian­s who consider it safe to approach a stopped or slowed train without knowing when the train will start moving or pick up speed. Over the next six months, police aim to use the grant money to staff overtime positions and enforce trespassin­g laws on railroad property that have been identified as hot spots for trespass incidents. Authoritie­s also will use educationa­l materials and person-to-person contact to change pedestrian behavior near tracks.

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