Union Pacific, which is the largest railroad operating in Arkansas, is working with local law enforcement agencies in an effort to crack down on drivers going around lowered crossing gates in front of approaching trains. They also watch for people trespassing by walking on railroad tracks or doing anything else considered unsafe.
About a dozen Little Rock Police officers took part in an operation this past week in the southwest part of the city. It was the latest effort in an ongoing campaign.
"We’ll have the Little Rock Police both on the train and on the ground at the railroad crossings,” said railroad Public Affairs Director Brandon Morris, “and both the UP special agents and the Little Rock Police will be citing anyone who commits an infraction at the crossings."
Southwest Little Rock is the only part of the city where the railroad’s busy double track main line, which is also shared with Amtrak passenger trains, has major street crossings. Because of that, train-vehicle collisions in Little Rock are rare compared to other cities, Morris says.
"There are a lot of overpasses, grade separations, so there are not a lot of opportunities for drivers to actually access railroad crossings. So the only railroad crossings that we have in Little Rock are in this southwest part of town."
But Morris notes there are some tricky crossings in that area. For a couple of miles the tracks run directly alongside University Avenue, with traffic lights at major intersections. If drivers aren’t careful and fail to observe signs warning vehicles not to stop on the tracks, they can easily find themselves trapped in backed up traffic at red lights as a train is approaching.
That’s why this enforcement campaign was held last Tuesday.
Little Rock officers, joined by Union Pacific special agents, assembled alongside the tracks in the Mabelvale area to begin the day’s operation. Soon the distant sound of a bell on a locomotive could be heard, followed by a few blasts from its horn. Then lights started flashing for the Mabelvale Main Street crossing as gates lowered, halting traffic.
This train was only made up of two locomotives, which would make several runs up and down this stretch of track over a few hours, with officers watching how motorists responded to the approaching train.
The train came to a halt in the middle of the crossing, with two Little Rock officers climbing onboard and inside the lead locomotive, along with this reporter and the railroad spokesman. After getting clearance via radio, the engineer and conductor resumed the train moving north.
Engineer Damon Corder kept his eyes straight on the track ahead, sounding the horn as it approached each crossing by pressing a green button. It was the familiar pattern of two long, one short, then another long blast of the horn until the train completely cleared each crossing.
As the train rolled through the crossings, Little Rock officers on motorcycles could be seen a short distance away, observing driver behavior. The two officers onboard the train also radioed what they were seeing to those officers.
The train passed over Baseline Road, under Interstate 30, briefly paralleled University Avenue, then crossed 65th Street. After each crossing, the motorcycle officers would move to the next crossing to watch for drivers attempting to go around downed gates or doing anything else that could be dangerous.
At one point those onboard the train spotted a pickup truck that seemed to speed up to get across the tracks after crossing gates had already started coming down.
"That person is definitely…" one person in the locomotive cab started to say as others agreed the driver needed to be stopped. Immediately two unmarked police SUVs pull the driver over, who wasn’t ticketed, but given a verbal warning.
It’s hoped the program, called Union Pacific’s Crossing Accident Reduction Education and Safety (UP CARES), can change behavior like that.
Talk to retired railroad workers and many can share horrific stories of hitting cars and trucks, feeling helpless because there’s nothing that can immediately stop a train when a driver makes a grave mistake and pulls in front of one. The images of pushing a car down the track, being able to see those inside who are often killed, can haunt railroad workers for the rest of their lives.
It can be a simple, impulse mistake by someone not wanting to wait for perhaps a couple of minutes for a train to pass that can prompt someone to take such an irrational, deadly risk. It may sound like a stale public service announcement that people should be careful and stop, look and listen at railroad crossings, but deadly accidents still occur with an unnerving degree of regularity.
The railroad reminds people that it can take a freight train traveling 55 miles per hour more than a mile to stop. It’s hoped that through this enforcement program, Morris says, that people will learn to be safer around crossings.
Last month, a similar operation took place in Cross County with Union Pacific and Arkansas State Police between the towns of Hickory Ridge and Fair Oaks on April 19. Morris says more will take place in the future.
"This is ongoing, this has actually been a part of Union Pacific’s education and enforcement for a number of years. We’ve been doing this program and it’s great because we do have a collaborative effort with law enforcement to not only deter criminal activity on Union Pacific property, but in the community at large."