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Union Pacific works to enhance awareness of railroad crossings

Alan Sillitoe, a conductor with Union Pacific, gets ready to hit the horn button as the train reaches a crossing. Federal law says the horn must be used in a specific pattern before reaching a crossing.

Sun Advocate reporter

Coming down the track at only 20 miles per hour, the Union Pacific Engine is making the trip through Price passing each crossing. Before reaching the intersection, the engineer hits a button activating the whistle to notify cars and pedestrians nearby that the train is coming. The gates at crossings drop and the bells begin to ring. It's a dangerous job maneuvering a locomotive that weighs over 200,000 pounds through town, but this is just an everyday part of the job.

As they pass through each crossing, Clint Gillespie, an engineer with UP, and Alan Sillitoe, a conductor with UP, carefully watch and observe their surroundings as they finally reach the outskirts of Price. While no accidents occur, there are plenty of close calls with cars, trucks and pedestrians trying to beat the train across the tracks.

On this day a Union Pacific locomotive was running back and forth between Price and Helper as part of a safety operation to enhance the awareness of the dangers of railroad right of way.

Driving through Price on multiple occasions it was evident exactly how many close calls take place within a time frame of three hours. Cars in the distance shot across the tracks before the gates came down blocking the road. Pedestrians casually walked across the tracks as the engine's whistle howled from a distance. A garbage truck driver looked at the engine and sped across the tracks, unwilling to wait for the engine to pass. There were no gates at this crossing heading east out of Price City, leaving the decision entirely in the driver's hands on whether to wait or not.

Two men walking across the track were undeterred by the horn whistling. One man began throwing up his middle finger and grabbing at his groin in the direction of the train as they continued on their way. Moments later a patrol car with its lights flashing stopped the men to give them citations for not yielding to the train. Gillespie could only laugh and crack a smile as it's just one of the many interesting things he and Sillitoe see on a daily basis.

Another close call happened when a bicyclist looked at the engine as he crossed the tracks just a few hundred yards ahead. Going just 20 mph, the locomotive usually goes 40 mph through town providing a shorter amount of time for the bicyclist to get across the tracks to safety.

"That's a classic example right there of a close call," said Sillitoe. "We have to be on top of everything every day on the job. We've got to watch everything that is going on around us."

Some drivers try to speed down side streets, looking for a way to get across the tracks and beat the train. In places where there are no gates, people sometimes get the urge to try and run the tracks before us, Sillitoe said.

"Some people stop and some don't," he said. "Some people seem to be really impatient and just want to beat it instead of waiting until we pass."

The consequences of a car or pedestrian not crossing the tracks in time is one of the more difficult aspects of the job he and others working for UP face on a daily basis, Sillitoe said.

"Eventually you will hit someone. But so far I have been lucky and haven't hit anyone yet," he said.

Gillespie cannot share the same luck. He was in an engine when it hit a man in Green River, killing him instantly. While the family and friends of the victim suffer through losing a loved one, conductors and engineers have to live with the fact of hitting someone while on the job. Sometimes they are the ones who see that person's last moments of life.

Because the train is stuck on the track, there is no way for it to swerve out of the way and avoid and accident, Gillespie said.

"All we can do is our job," Gillespie said of blowing the whistle and notifying people nearby the train is coming. "They (people) have to do theirs too."

"If we hit you, you're a goner. It's not worth it," said Sillitoe. "The question is, can you wait for two minutes or do you want to risk your life?"

Gillespie hits the button activating the horn before reaching a crossing. Two long whistles followed by one short blast. Then as the engine reaches the crossing he hits the button again for another long whistle. It may be annoying for those nearby, but it's federal law that says they must do so for each and every crossing an engine passes through.

"All of these rules and regulations we follow, including blowing the whistle, are all done in the name of safety," Sillitoe said. "People may flip us off and get angry about the noise, but we're just doing our jobs."

Hitting animals, cars, debris on the tracks, and in unfortunate situations, people, conductors and engineers live and work with the knowledge that one day or another something is going to happen. Close calls with cars and pedestrians are an everyday occurrence and not much can be done to prevent an accident, Gillespie said.

"We harp on our own children to stay away from the tracks and always tell them not to play near them," said Gillespie.

Children and adults put things on the track for the train to hit just for fun, said John Haering, manager of operating practices in the Western region with Union Pacific. Things like mattresses, shopping carts, rocks, coins and anything else they can get onto the tracks are used. While the sight of the train hitting an object may be fun, the train usually just chews up and spits out whatever is in front of it, he said.

Because of incidents like this, Union Pacific wants to make sure that safety is a top priority for its employees and people within the community. The dangers of a railroad right of way, especially in a community like Price, are a major concern because of the cars and pedestrians in the areas near tracks, Haering said.

"I don't think people realize the power a train has behind it," said Haering. "A train going 40 mph through town would need a mile before it could stop."

"It takes just a minute and a half for the engine to go by the crossing. An accident doesn't just affect the victims and their families, it affects everyone involved. It's something they will never forget," he said.

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