I took on one of the toughest assignments of my career last year when I picked up the phone and learned from a reporter that a young boy had been seriously injured while playing on the tracks and trains of our BNSF Railway.
According to the reporter, a group of kids in Memphis, Tenn., regularly found their way through a wooded area and down a steep embankment to “hop” aboard our trains for a short ride to a playground. On this particular afternoon one of the boys had slipped and fallen beneath the slow-moving train. His left leg was immediately severed and his right hand was mangled. Despite quick response from emergency crews and the attention of highly skilled surgeons, he ended up losing both the arm and leg.
Fort Worth Weekly‘s cover story of March 18, “Renaissance on the Rails,” romanticized and glamorized the practice of hopping freight rail cars for extended joy rides. Because of that, it did a tremendous disservice to impressionable individuals of all ages. Train-hopping is dangerous, illegal, and often has deadly consequences.
I need to put emotion aside, however, and concentrate on giving readers some facts about trespassing on railway property. Although your article specifically mentioned Bo Keely’s preference for BNSF Railway trains, trespassing is an industry-wide challenge for freight haulers.
Far too many individuals are injured or killed while engaging in a number of highly unsafe behaviors in and around the railway, from climbing on, crawling under, or sleeping in the cars to horseplay on the tracks. According to the Federal Railroad Administration web site, more than 3,600 people were killed or injured in 2008 while trespassing on railroad property. (A comprehensive list of those casualties is posted on the railroad agency’s site, at safetydata.fra.dot.gov/officeofsafety/publicsite/Query/castally4.aspx.)
To prevent such tragedies, BNSF railway police aggressively enforce trespassing laws. Last year our officers in Texas made 290 arrests for trespassing and removed more than 1,200 undocumented aliens from trains and railyards.
We are a responsible company, invested in the communities where we operate, and we have zero tolerance for trespassing. Railroad police, charged with patrolling vast territories and performing many functions, routinely work with local law enforcement agencies. Our officers and local agencies arrest any and all train riders when discovered. Those convicted of trespassing can be fined from $500 to $4,000 and also face possible jail time.
The rail industry also promotes rail safety through educational programs. Operation Lifesaver, an international nonprofit education and awareness program with offices in all 50 states, strives to increase public awareness about the dangers of people acting carelessly around trains and tracks. The program seeks to educate both drivers and pedestrians about making safe decisions at railroad crossings and around railroad tracks. Program volunteers make presentations to schools, community groups, and civic clubs, reinforcing our message. At BNSF, our internal On-Guard and external Citizens for Rail Security outreach programs are designed in part to provide early notice that trespassing is a crime and to encourage reporting of such violations.
My company and our industry are working hard in this area, but we need the public’s support as well. We fear that putting Bo Keely on the cover of the Weekly, with a story detailing how he avoids detection, could provide a blueprint to someone who may not be so fortunate, leading to their arrest, serious injury, or death.
I encourage your readers to recognize the dangers of trespassing on rail property, to respect the law, and to
act responsibly around active railroads in all circumstances.
Joseph Faust of Fort Worth is regional public affairs director for BNSF Railway.