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Safety advocates caution drivers about rail crossings

By Justin Boron

When cars line up at a railroad crossing and there is no train in sight, a drivers wait can be aggravating.

But a momentary lapse in patience in trying to beat an oncoming train is not worth the risk, said several rail officials and members of a national crossing safety group.

Local dignitaries took a train ride down the center of Clayton County Wednesday ending in Barnesville. The 108-mile round trip intended to raise awareness about the dangers of disobeying crossing guidelines.

The event was sponsored by Norfolk Southern Corporation and Operation Lifesaver, which originated in Idaho in 1972 amid a rise in crossing-crash-related fatalities. The non-profit group began work in Georgia a year later and has since developed programs throughout the country.

Bill Barringer, the director of Norfolk Southern's grade crossing safety, said informing drivers is the most effective solution for preventing accidents because ultimately, the train cannot do much to avoid collisions.

"If you look at the stopping distance, there's no way the train is going to be able to stop," he said. "There's no steering wheel up in the locomotive."

At 55 miles per hour, the average freight train takes more than a mile to stop.

Only two collisions have occurred in Clayton County during the past five years.

But they are a larger problem across the state with its close to 10,000 railroad crossings. The spider web of rail lines in Atlanta and Fulton County have seen 77 collisions resulting in 3 fatalities and 11 injuries in the past five years.

"We still have a lot of people who disregard the warning signs and stops signs," Georgia State Patrol Capt. George Whittaker said. "They just don't realize the severity of what they are doing."

Speeds didn't get high enough on the train Wednesday to pose too much risk to cars while passengers glided along from Atlanta at a 30 to 35 mph.

Television screens hung inside the train displayed the engineer's view of upcoming intersections, where cars could be seen crossing.

There were no close calls.

But Whittaker said a number of things could go wrong when drivers take those types of risks.

Cars can stall and the ones low to the ground can get caught on the rails, he said.

Drivers often don't appear to take the risk that seriously.

Clayton County Sheriff's Deputy Eddie Hall said most of the time when people get caught, they don't act concerned.

" 'Okay, you got me'," he said drivers say. "It's normal for them."

Operation Lifesaver recommends the following guidelines to lower risk of collisions.

é Never drive around lowered gates. If you suspect a signal is malfunctioning, call the 1-800 number typically posted on or near the crossing signal.

é Never race a train to the crossing.

é Do not get trapped on the tracks. Only proceed through a highway-rail grade crossing if you are sure you can completely clear the crossing without stopping. Remember the train is three feet wider than the tracks on both sides.

é At a multiple track crossing waiting for a train to pass, watch out for a second train on the other tracks, approaching in either direction.

é Always expect a train. Freight trains do not follow set schedules.

é Be aware that trains cannot stop quickly.

é Do not be fooled by the optical illusion. The train you see is closer and faster moving than you think.

While the main purpose of the trip was safety education, the train ride also served for some as a sneak peak at what a commuter rail ride back from Atlanta might be like. Several Georgia Department of Transportation officials were on the train along with state Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, who sits on the oversight committee for the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

He said he was riding to identify possible areas that may need improvement if the $106-million planned rail continues toward its start date late in 2006. Stoner said there was nothing insurmountable about what he calls a potential "economic gold mine" for Clayton County.