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Surprised drivers get a lesson in rail crossing law

An engineer's view of a railroad crossing. The lights have not begun flashing and the gate is still open, so this is a legal crossing.

Sun Advocate associate editor

It is illegal to drive across railroad tracks while the warning signals are flashing, even though the barricade is going up. That came as a surprise to more than one Price driver Tuesday as the Union Pacific and Price police staged a three-hour targeted effort at rail crossing traffic enforcement.

"The point is to raise public awareness of the safety issues involved," explained Rick Thornton, senior special agent with UP.

At least four drivers along the short stretch of track between the First North overpass and Ray's Road got a quick lesson by way of warning tickets from police who were watching closely for violations.

Police also cited five people for trespass, or walking along the tracks or right of way.

To stage the exercise, the railroad hooked two locomotives together back to back, then drove back and forth. The train crew communicated with the cops by radio to advise when they were leaving from either end of the drive.

All the warning gear was working fine at the crossings. According to Randy Merrill, UP's western region manager of operating practices, the tracks have sensors in them and automatically trigger the gates and flashers at crossings 30 seconds before the train arrives.

That may seem like a long time to wait in a car, but agent Thornton commented that trains cannot exactly stop on a dime. An emergency stop can take up to seven football fields, depending on speed and load. So someone whose car gets stranded on a track or who crosses at a blind curve with a train less than 30 seconds away is in deep trouble.

As an example of why it is illegal to cross a track while the lights are flashing, it happened that the tandem engines were stopped at one end of the run and along came a coal train on the other track.

Had something like this been at or near a crossing, a driver might think that the flashers were for a slow moving or stopped train, unaware that a faster train was coming down the other track.

Crew members Clint Gillespie and Russell Holm have seen a lot of risky behavior by drivers during their years on the rails.

It's not so bad in Price, where the gates block cross traffic, but in other places where there are only flashers and bells, drivers will take life threatening chances, they said.

Trespass is another concern of the railroad. Railroad property basically extends from the tracks to the road, and considering the weights and speeds of passing engines and freight, it should be considered a no-walking zone except at authorized crossings.

As the exercise through town continued, Merrill, Holm and Gillespie spotted yet another traffic stop by police for an illegal crossing.

"Like shooting fish in a barrel," Merrill sighed.

"Unfortunately," added Gillespie.

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