Taking steps to prevent rail tragedies in New Jersey
The investigation into the fatal Metro-North train crash earlier this month continues, and as investigators continue to examine what happened, safety advocates and state agencies are taking steps to ensure the safety of passengers and motorists.
On Feb. 4, a Metro-North commuter train in suburban New York struck a car crossing the tracks and six people lost their lives. As a result, New Jersey rail riders and drivers are being told to heed warning lights and sounds -- or the gate itself at a rail crossing.
New Jersey Transit declined to be interviewed about that accident, but issued the following statement:
"Safety is the number one priority at NJ TRANSIT. We have 330 grade crossings across our system which are inspected every 30 days in compliance with federal regulations. In the wake of this tragedy we want to remind motorists to obey warning devices and signals, never stop on grade crossings and make sure there is enough distance between you and other vehicles so you can safely exit the crossing. At NJ TRANSIT, the most common accidents at railroad crossings occur when a motor vehicle driver disobeys the warning devices and goes around downed crossing gates falsely believing they can get through the crossing before the train arrives."
NJ Transit Spokesman William Smith said all NJ Transit rail crossings have lights and warning sound and all but three have gates. He also said warning sounds are issued 30 seconds in advance of the arrival of a train, and even those federal regulations require a 20 second advance notice.
Since the Metro-North accident, NJT police and representatives from the Office of System Security have been conducting so-called "safety blitzes" at stations along the system to encourage riders to be aware of safety concerns and follow the rules.
So far this year, there have been no reported fatalities or injuries at highway/rail grade crossings in New Jersey. In 2014, there was one fatality and two injuries at highway/rail grade crossings. In 2013, there were three fatalites and 16 injuries at highway/rail grade crossings, according to NJ Transit.
Smith said NJT does not determine whether a fatal incident is a suicide or not.
Meanwhile, rail safety groups are also stepping up education efforts in New Jersey and other states.
Libby Rector Snipe, the director of communications for Operation Lifesaver, said her organization is involved in numerous presentations in schools, because children as well as adults can be injured or killed along train tracks.
"When motorists approach a rail crossing they must remember that trains cannot stop quickly," she said. "It can take a mile or more for a train to stop once the emergency brakes are applied, that's 18 football fields."
She said it's never safe to drive around the lowered gates.
"The train will be there very quickly and there's very rarely time to actually maneuver around a lowered gate. Besides being distracted, people are just in a hurry and think they have more time than they do to cross the tracks and risk their life by going around a lowered gate," She said.
Snipe said Operation Lifesaver has launched a public awareness campaign, See Tracks Think Train.
"That's really the bottom line here," she said. "Whenever you see tracks, always assume that a train is coming."