The newspaper office sat next to the train tracks. The sound of a freight train throwing on brakes was not a new one. I grabbed a camera and raced out the door.
The train had stopped, and I jumped the coupling to get a clear photo of the damaged auto. I walked, clicking off frames, toward the crash scene. About 10 yards away, I recognized the vehicle.
It was my grandmother’s car.
I returned to the office to tell my father his mother was either dead or seriously injured. He went with me to observe the Cotton Belt crew break the train allowing the ambulance to remove my grandmother.
As we stood watching, the city manager told us new crossing guards with extended arms had just been approved.
They were too late to save my grandmother who died a few minutes later. Of course, she never should have pulled onto the tracks. Bells and the flashing lights were going.
Signs of an approaching train were often ignored in that town. Rail crews would park their trains near an intersection, so close they would trip the warning devices. They would go into the depot or allow the conductor to grab some hot links.
The switching train had triggered the lights and blocked vision to the north. After sitting for longer than her Irish temper would allow, my grandmother started across, not seeing the speeding train on the through track.
What killed her was not her error in disregarding the warnings or even the train on the through track, it was the callous arrogance of rail companies and their employees who block intersections and create hazardous situations.
In 2017, 274 people died in 2,105 vehicle-train collisions in the United States. I am sure you will not be surprised that the Nation Traffic Safety Administration has determined that you are 20 times more likely to die if you collide with a train than if you collide with another vehicle.
During the same period, Great Britain experienced only six deaths from grade level crossing accidents. Until a bad accident last November, it had been 10 years since the last
time a passenger or employee on a British train died.
The European Union does not have a great record, however.
In 2016, the EU had 984 killed. In another chilling statistic, 2,870 persons committed suicide by train that year in the EU, according to an European rail report.
Britain shows us that we do not have to tolerate this slaughter at grade crossings. Trains can be made to not block intersections for long periods of time and crossing barriers can be more effective.
They say those who live and work near train tracks become deaf to the sound of engines, bells and whistles. I just wish they could tell me how to un-see what I have seen.
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