Tim Wagnon has been behind the controls of Norfolk Southern locomotives for 35 years. That doesn’t mean he has total control over the thousand of tons of freight pulled behind him.
Over a lengthy career in the cabs of iconic black-and-white behemoths, Wagnon has felt the helplessness that creeps over engineers when a car or pedestrian appears in their rumbling path.
“Your heart wants to come out of your chest,” said Wagnon. “You’re sounding the horn, putting on the brakes and emergency brakes and that’s all you can really do. I don’t have a steering wheel. I can’t steer around anything.”
Despite exhaustive statewide measures to eliminate accidents involving pedestrians, motorists and trains, Alabama still ranks among the top states in the nation in the number of railway incidents involving trespassers and highway crossings.
Wagnon has experienced both scenarios.
“You have to realize people do that to themselves and move past it,” he said. “Whether it is on purpose, or out of poor judgment, they do it to themselves.”
Locally, the stories of train collisions have been tragic.
— In 2002, a train plowed into a Ford Mustang driven by 22-year-old Jacksonville resident Tonya Lena Southward at a crossing in Choccolocco, killing her as her vehicle sat on the tracks.
— In 2010, a train struck and killed 46-year-old Oxford resident Kevin Lee McCullough as he walked down the tracks near his home around 5 a.m.
— Earlier this year, a 35-year-old Oxford woman and her 7-year-old son were killed when a car driven by the woman’s daughter was struck by an oncoming freight train in Oxford.
“We have 3,500 miles of track with over 6,000 crossings,” said Nancy Hudson, executive director of Operation Lifesaver Alabama, a non-profit organization focused on railway safety.
“You’re onto something when you’re thinking about the size of the state and miles of track,” she said. “For the first time Alabama jumped into the top 15 for trespasser casualties.”
Calhoun County’s railway safety record matches Alabama’s. With 85 highway-rail crossings, Calhoun County has more crossings than 45 other counties across the state. As the city of Oxford has grown around its 16 crossings, increased rail and motor traffic exposure has likely contributed to the area’s recent railway incidents. According to Warren Flatau, a spokesman from the Federal Railroad Administration, traffic exposure is a good indication of potential railway incidents involving highway crossings or trespassers.
“In populated centers you have more traffic and there seems to be some consensus that exposure would be more directly correlated with incidents,” said Flatau.
In April, Operation Lifesaver launched a new program advocating for railway safety, featuring the slogan, “See tracks, think train.” Hudson estimates that her organization spends roughly $20,000 a year on advertising campaigns for train safety awareness, with financial support coming from the Alabama Department of Transportation.
“Typically, we use radio and print more than billboards,” said Hudson. “I feel like I get more impressions using radio and print than TV or billboards.”
However, even with thousands of dollars spent annually on safety awareness, millions of dollars spent on crossing maintenance and every effort made by engineers to make their train’s presence known, Alabama has the fourth-highest crossing collision and trespasser casualty per capita rate in the United States, according to calculations made by The Star using FRA data.
‘You never know when’
“A railroad crossing always scares me because you never know what’s going to come out in front of you or when someone is going to be up on the track,” said Wagnon.
Railway deaths and injuries involving a crossing or trespasser have actually increased since 2009, when they reached a 10-year low. In 2009, Alabama saw only 13 trespasser casualties and 70 crossing collisions. In 2013, there were 21 trespasser deaths or injuries and 85 crossing collisions across the state.
Still, safety efforts fall short as these incidents continue, evidenced most recently by last month’s collision at a crossing at Coleman Road in Oxford. There, a car driven by 20-year-old Taneysha Chatman was struck by a Norfolk-Southern train, killing Chatman’s 35-year-old mother, Temeshica, and her son, 7-year-old Nytavioun Powell. After the collision, Oxford police indicated that the driver likely drove around the lowered crossing bars, typical of collisions of the sort. According to Flatau, the Federal Railroad Administration spokesman, more than half of all crossing collisions occur with lowered gates and flashing lights.
According to Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge, an investigation into the collision was in the final stages as of Thursday.
In a hurry
Why people are on the tracks is something of a mystery. The Star’s attempts to reach the driver of the car in the recent Oxford accident, as well as people who witnessed earlier Calhoun County train collisions, were unsuccessful.
The people on the other side of the equation — rail officials and first responders who arrive at the scene of each accident — have their theories.
“Today’s mindset driving a car is that people want to get there as soon as possible,” said Wagnon. “They don’t want to wait five minutes for a train to pass. They will take any chance to avoid being delayed.”
Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown said that trespassers who are killed usually have some similarities between them.
“The ones that are on the tracks are more drifters,” he said. “I think it’s a product of them being more mobile and transient in their lifestyle.”
Though Operation Lifesaver aims to spread its railway safety message to anyone it can, the organization targets 17- to 24-year-old males with their advertising.
“That age group is usually greater risk-takers,” said Hudson, the Operation Lifesaver director. “Statistically, we see that it’s predominantly that age group in crashes and trespassing.”
Here to stay
The first rails arrived in the area when the Alabama & Tennessee Rivers Railroad built a line from Selma to Blue Mountain during the Civil War, according to documentation at the Anniston public library. By 1883, Samuel Noble’s railcar manufacturing plant had been moved from Rome, Ga., to Anniston. Anniston and Oxford, like many U.S. cities, owe their livelihood to the railroad.
“People wonder why they built a railroad around this town, but the town is only there because of the railroad,” said Wagnon. “I think peoples’ attitudes need to change.”
To this day, Alabama is still heavily reliant on rail transportation. According to American Association of Railroads statistics, Alabama generated 33.2 million tons of rail traffic in 2011. Alabama is also the nation’s leader in railway transport of paper products.
“Rail helped build the country,” said Hudson. “We still haul all kinds of things on trains. It is a vital part of our country and our industry.”
With railway transport a mainstay in Alabama, motorists and pedestrians can count on a train encounter. It is their job to make safe decisions around the rails, according to Wagnon.
“I’m sure we all could do a little more,” he said. “I don’t think we could put a chain-link fence around every mile of track, but people need to know the train has the right of way. The railroad is here to stay.”