Big steam operators see teachable moment in Union Pacific tragedy

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Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765 leads the Joliet Rocket into LaSalle Street Station in Chicago in June 2017.
TRAINS: S. Sweeney
DALLAS — Operators of big steam locomotives see a chance to review their safe operating procedures days after a pedestrian standing too close to the tracks was struck and killed by Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844 July 21 near Denver.

Kelly Lynch, vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, says that better safety procedures were on the group's mind even before the Union Pacific incident. Lynch says that as a matter of policy, excursion staff plan ahead and establish procedures for as many different types of emergencies as a matter of policy. This September, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society will return its steam engine, Nickel Plate Road no. 765, to Chicago to host the Joliet Rocket.

"What we have done recently, even before this incident, is update our emergency action plans to include every scenario that a Class I or commuter railroad could encounter," Lynch tells Trains News Wire. "That's everything from an active shooter to a pedestrian or automotive accident.”

Lynch says that the Fort Wayne group recently fine-tuned their training to reflect that last year's Joliet Rocket excursions were the first time that an event included serving alcohol to its passengers. Lynch said that the 765's excursions with an emergency medical technician on board, and often solicit off-duty police officers to act as event security. Additionally, every time the 765 is on an excursion, even for deadhead moves, the group contacts local police to inform them that there may be increased automotive and pedestrian traffic around the railroad tracks.

Some railroad executives see big steam excursions as an educational opportunity. Henry Posner III, chairman of the Iowa Interstate Railroad, says that the first responder's benefit train that will be pulled by the railroad's two Chinese-built QJ locomotives this August will provide an important chance to provide members of the public with information on railroad safety.

"Typically, on these trips, I will walk through the train in every car and thank the riders for supporting their local first responders, and also giving them a personal Operation Lifesaver message," Posner says, “You make eye contact, you walk through the train, and usually several times somebody will tell you a personal story. It really is very effective way of spreading the message."

Posner tells News Wire that the Iowa Interstate and the Central States Steam Preservation Association, the volunteer group that operates the QJs, have consistently tried to make the special events as safe as possible. He does not anticipate any changes to their operating procedure, unless the investigation from the Union Pacific incident begins to suggest specific ways that excursion safety might be improved.

"We have not had any incidents in the history that we have been doing this, and we hope to continue that," Posner says. "The number one thing that I think is relevant is that this re-enforces the need for community outreach about safety through programs like Operation Lifesaver."

Although the recent incident is one of exceptionally few fatal incidents that have occurred during big steam excursions, many operators have witnessed members of the public coming too close to the tracks for comfort.

"The situation that played out in Colorado is nothing new to us or any operator of steam locomotives," says Martin Hansen, with the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation and the Friends of the 4449 — the group that supports former Southern Pacific GS-4 4-8-4 No. 4449. "Some people are simply not paying attention to the approaching train, and that can be their last mistake, as we saw with the unfortunate incident this weekend."

Police north of Denver have yet to release a report on the incident but video released to YouTube by a drone pilot shows a person standing in the railroad right-of-way waiting for the classic steam locomotive on its run to Denver as part of the annual Frontier Days train. The train struck and killed the person when they failed to move out of the way of the train. The person appears to be using a cell phone camera in the seconds before the tragedy.

"We all know why laws have been put on the books to prevent 'distracted driving,'" Hansen says. "This is to try and get people to pay attention to the task at hand and not their cell phone. The same principle is at work here. While very tragic, the episode that took place this weekend should be used to educate not the railroads, who already know of the danger, but to educate the public that they need to stay off the tracks a safe distance no matter what the situation."
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