STAR, N.C. -- It’s a chilling fact; every three hours in the US a person or vehicle is struck by a train, leading to approximately 1,200 deaths per year.
To illustrate that danger, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and railway safety organization “Operation Lifesaver” held a demonstration that is breathtaking and hopefully life-saving.
Using a locomotive from the Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway and a former State Highway Patrol cruiser, the demonstration was set to see what would happen when the train hit the car.
“Oh, I was just cringing, nothing but cringing, then we heard the impact and it was brutal,” said Jennifer Harrell, president of Aberdeen Carolina & Western.
The two collided at about 23 mph, a low speed crash compared to how fast trains and cars travel in real world conditions, but even at the reduced speed, the injuries to the dummies in the car would have likely been fatal.
The test was witnessed by first responders from across the state including Montgomery County Emergency Management Coordinator Robbie Smith.
Smith has worked these types of crashes in his capacity as a first responder but on Feb. 12, 1992, his vantage point of a train versus vehicle crash was as a passenger in an ambulance on the way to a call.
“We were running emergency traffic, lights and sirens, didn’t hear the train whistle and as we were approaching, the train came out from behind the trees and our ambulance collided with the train,” Smith said.
He and the driver were airlifted to the hospital and both recovered, and that makes this test even more special to him.
But the reality is the nature of today’s society is causing more people to be less aware of trains.
“The scary part is a lot of these impacts are happening now because of texting and people listening to their music too loud,” Harrell said.
The crashes take a toll on the train engineers too, almost like PTSD; some relive the scene over and over again. A lot of the engineers can’t get back in a locomotive and run again.
“I’ve had somebody turn around and look at me and that death look in their face, it’s devastating, it’s something we have to carry with us every day,” said Tommy Aldridge, a train engineer who has been involved in fatal collisions.
So the message to everyone after this demonstration is simple.
“Respect the train tracks , respect the train, the train will win, it will always win,” Harrell said.
The thing to remember is when you see the track, think train.