Seeing University of Virginia students and others cross the railroad tracks in Charlottesville is an everyday sight. What you don't get to see every day is the perspective from inside the locomotive. In this NBC29 special report, we go inside the cab with the men who deal with dangerous railroad crossing situations every day.
Engineers and conductors who run the trains for Norfolk Southern took us along for a ride through Charlottesville, sharing heartbreaking stories in hopes of keeping people off the tracks.
The blast of a train whistle, the clink of the bell and the sight of an oncoming mass of metal are things we're all familiar with but there's a view most of us never see - the view of the crew. Train conductor Curtis Powell grew up on the tracks. His father was a conductor, and he followed on those same rails.
When Powell came aboard seven months ago, he heard the words Norfolk Southern says every new conductor has to hear:you can expect to kill five people in your career. In 2012, 12 people lost their lives on the tracks in Virginia. So far this year, one life has been lost in Albemarle County and one in Charlottesville.
On the night of February 15, 2013, a train came through a stretch of tracks near Charlottesville's Amtrak station at less than 25 miles an hour. Norfolk Southern Engineer Darryl Willis passed by the station on track 1, just seconds before train 227 passed by on track 2.
It was dark, and nothing could've prepared the crew on board for what happened next. "It will stay with me for a long time," Willis stated. "I heard on the radio that 227 had hit a pedestrian who was lying on the tracks."
Charlottesville police say the crew put the train into emergency stop, but there was nothing they could do to save the 18-year-old University of Virginia student who had intentionally lain on the tracks.
Willis says the memory of that night still haunts him when he comes through Charlottesville. "If I had just seen the person wandering around the track or attempting to lay down, if I had just came through a little bit later, I would've saw him trying to do that. And I could have called the other train and had them stop or I could've called the police.I could have did something about it," he said.
Norfolk Southern says crew members involved in tragic accidents can develop post-traumatic stress disorder and live with the memory of impact forever.
Foreman Curtis Brookshire has hit three people on the tracks in his 15-year career. "Whenever you go through it, you never forget it," he stated. "A fully loaded train at speed takes up to a mile to stop."
Now, he works with the nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, sharing crash videos with drivers, and putting pedestrians in the shoes of the crew. We teamed up with Brookshire to put University of Virginia students to the test in a spot where they frequently cross the tracks illegally as a shortcut.
UVA student Sarah Seo had just crossed the tracks wearing headphones when we challenged her to face the 'engineer's dilemma,' a game designed to put people in the shoes of a train engineer.
Brookshire asked her to stand a little more than 30 feet away from him, and imagine that she was running a train. He held a small model in his hand of a railroad crossing. To scale, the distance between Seo and the model was one mile, the approximate distance it takes for a train to stop. By the time Seo saw a car and three people trapped on the model's tiny tracks, it was far too late to stop her hypothetical train. She would have plowed through the car and the people on the tracks.
She says next time, she'll think twice about crossing there. "I'm supposed to think twice about it anyway, so I'll think thrice about it now," she stated.
Back on the train, Powell and Willis watch helplessly as people like Seo cross the tracks. They brace for the day they have to face their own engineer's dilemma and hope everyone will remember that accidents on the tracks affect victims, their families, and the people you rarely see behind the scenes.
Willis said, "I keep hoping and praying that it never happens."
Operation Lifesaver asks everyone to remember these tips for staying safe around the tracks:
Never cross the tracks or walk along the tracks illegally.
If your car gets stuck at a legal crossing, move away from the car and call for help.
Don't fall back on your knowledge of the train schedules - they are always changing and a train could come at any time.
Don't rely on track vibration to tell you when a train is coming - new technology means you can't always feel or hear an oncoming train.
Don't stand or park your car too close to the tracks - a train is wider than the rails.
Trespassing on railroad property is a class one misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail.
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