Featured, Local News, State News

Train safety awareness at forefront after two close-calls

By Katy Savage

After two near-tragedies on the same day, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) is reminding people to stay off of train tracks. 

Toni Clithero, the state operation coordinator of Operation Lifesaver of Vermont, Inc. at VTrans, said a couple walking their dog on the Ethan Allen Express rail line in West Rutland on April 4 narrowly missed being struck by an approaching train. Clithero said the people got out of the way just in time as the train crew was unable to stop. 

The same day, a teenager was photographed by an employee of the Vermont Rail System walking his dog on the tracks in Brandon. The teen was wearing earbuds and likely would not have heard the approaching Ethan Allen Express, which was only minutes away.

“It’s critical that people see this is happening,” Clithero said. “It’s a whole different level of safety awareness.” 

Amtrak is practicing high-speed train runs in preparation for a new service that will take passengers from Rutland to Burlington this summer.  This train runs up to 59 mph and it can take up to a mile to stop.

Courtesy seetracksthinktrain.org
See Tracks? Think Train.

Clithero said the train is on a continuously welded rail, making it quiet and easily confused with the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. The train typically only sounds its horn at public railroad crossings. 

The new service will mark the first passenger train in the area since 1953. Many haven’t seen such a passenger train in their lifetimes and have gotten used to using the train track for recreational activities. 

“We are seeing a lot of people walking along the tracks, jogging, and treating the tracks like a trail,” said Clithero. “People have gotten used to certain freight trains. They need to know that that’s not all that’s out there now.” 

Being on the train tracks or within the 15-foot right of way on either side of the track is considered trespassing and can result in a $200 fine, Clithero said. 

It’s illegal to cross the train track anywhere other than the crossing area. 

“If you see tracks, think ‘train’ and always stay off the train tracks and everyone will be OK,” Clithero said. 

Clithero said Amtrak officials are conducting the test runs at their discretion and could not release the times trains. 

“We do not get advance notice,” Clithero said. 

The Vermont Transportation Agency has been working for about 10 years to upgrade the tracks and other rail infrastructure on the 75 miles of rail between Burlington and Rutland. 

“We’re very very excited, it’s been a long time coming,” Clithero said. “It’s been a lot of work, a lot of money to allow this over at least a decade. It’s wonderful that the train is almost here.” 

But the excitement of the new service comes with safety concerns. 

Vermont has seen 20 train-related incidents since 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration. There’s been four deaths and four accidents caused by the train in that time period. 

Meanwhile, it’s the 50th anniversary of Operation Lifesaver, a program that educates the public about train safety. Clithero said she’s putting educational materials, including videos together to distribute to public schools. 

Clithero is also asking people to take the rail safety pledge, which states, “I will make safe choices around railroad tracks and trains by obeying warning signs and always expecting a train. I will stay off the tracks including when taking photographs or filming videos and will never walk on or too close to railroad tracks.

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