Death underscores problem of train track trespassers

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PORTLAND (AP) – Anybody who’s seen the 1986 movie “Stand By Me” remembers the scene where four 12-year-old boys run for their lives when a fast-moving train surprises them as they cross a river gorge on a railroad trestle.

Everybody in the movie survived. Eleven-year-old Nathan Chheng wasn’t so lucky a week ago when he was killed in Warren, unable to outrun a train on a bridge where he was fishing.

Chheng’s death underscores the growing problem of trespassing on train tracks.

There have been more than 3,000 such deaths nationwide since 2000, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Six of those deaths were in Maine.

Train engineers regularly see people using railroad property to ride all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, to walk and jog, to swim and fish from trestles, said Erik Young, an engineer for Amtrak’s Downeaster, which runs between Portland and Boston.

Trespassing is no laughing matter when his 130-ton locomotive approaches at 50 or 60 mph. Young hit an ATV last winter that a rider left to the side of the tracks, and he once found himself behind a snowmobiler who was barreling down the middle of the tracks in a rail yard.

“Trains can be there at any time at any speed. I don’t know why people take chances with their lives,” Young said.

In “Stand by Me,” based on a story by Stephen King, boyhood friends Chris, Teddy, Vern and Gordie leap to safety to escape the smoke-billowing locomotive.

Chheng, a fifth-grader at Jefferson Village School, was fishing with his mother’s boyfriend and two other adults on April 23. They walked past a no-trespassing sign to get on the bridge.

The lazy afternoon of fishing from the trestle turned into a life-and-death situation when, shortly after 3:30 p.m., a Maine Eastern Railroad maintenance train pulling six empty hopper cars came around the corner at 25 mph. Nathan yelled “Train!” and the four took off running.

Two of the adults scrambled to safety, but the train struck Nathan, who had stumbled, as well as 26-year-old Aaron Staples of Warren. The boy died on the tracks; the impact sent Staples over the trestle. He was critically injured.

The incident served as a reminder of the inherent dangers on the nation’s 233,000 miles of track. Maine has about 1,200 miles of active tracks.

“The message we’re trying to get through is railroads are private property and people have no business being out there,” said Jonathan Shute, general manager of Maine Eastern Railroad.

Until 1997, most train fatalities resulted from vehicle-train collisions at railroad crossings. But crossing deaths fell by more than 50 percent between 1981, when there were 728, and last year, when there were 355, according to Operation Lifesaver, a national railroad education organization based in Alexandria, Va.

At the same time, the number of deaths involving trespassers – people who are illegally on railroad property and rights of way – has risen.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of trespass fatalities ranged from about 380 to 450 each year. But in the past 15 years, the annual number has usually exceeded 500, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics.

In Maine, a 32-year-old man was killed by a freight train in 2004 while fishing on a railroad bridge in Belgrade. A snowmobiler was killed when struck by a train in Jackman. In Aroostook County, a man died after falling through a gap on a railroad trestle.

Then there are the near-misses and injuries.

A Massachusetts man and his son dove from a trestle into a brook in 2004 when their ATV got stuck on a rail bridge in Warren as a train approached. Two men fishing from a trestle in Wiscasset two years ago had to dangle from the side to avoid being hit when a train came by. In Thomaston, teenagers aboard three ATVs came head-to-head with a train inspection vehicle that, had it been a train, could have ended with multiple fatalities.

One possible reason that trespassing has become more problematic is the growing popularity of ATVs and snowmobiles. Others suggest that development pressures have pushed residential and commercial development along railroad lines, thus exposing more people to train tracks and giving rise to more trespassing.

Adding to the problem is that trains are quieter than ever. With welded tracks, the clicketyclack is a thing of the past for the most part. Also, people accustomed to slow-moving trains are sometimes surprised when a fast one comes along.

Patricia Douglas, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, was alarmed at how many people were out and about on the tracks when she recently rode the rails from Portland to Massachusetts on a track inspection vehicle.

One young girl walked onto the tracks in front of the vehicle with hardly a glance while listening to a portable music device with earphones, Douglas said. Two men walking between the rails were oblivious that the inspection vehicle was behind them.

“I think people’s expectations are that they’ll hear the train coming and get off in time,” Douglas said. “That’s a false expectation.”

The FRA is now undertaking a studying to learn more about the demographics of who trespasses on train tracks. Anecdotally, the FRA sees a cross-section of society trespassing on tracks: young and old, men and women, rich and poor.

All of those people are ignoring danger that could lurk around the corner, said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the FRA. “Whether it’s your first or 10,000th time crossing the tracks, you can be struck,” Flatau said.

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