Groups work to stop Michigan pedestrian deaths by trains


Image: Nicholas Morgan

By Samuel Blatchford
Capital News Service

More than 10 pedestrians were fatally struck by trains in Michigan in the past three years.

Those deaths included accidents and suicides, according to Federal Railroad Administration reports.

In one accidental death last year, a 17-year-old in Davison attempted to cross the tracks on May 31, tripped and fell and died when he was struck by an oncoming train, according to an FRA report.

Jeff DeGraff, the manager of media relations for Norfolk Southern Corp., which operates in southern Michigan, said, “Railroad tracks are private property, and walking on along or crossing tracks at nonposted crossings is considered trespassing.”

DeGraff said, ”This is to deter people from taking unnecessary risks.”

“In many cases, pedestrians cannot judge the speed of a train or hear one approaching from behind them,” DeGraff said.

Sam Crowl, the state coordinator at Michigan Operation Lifesaver, said there needs to be better safety enforcement by state and local police departments.

The Troy-based nonprofit organization helps prevent train fatalities through public information and education programs.

He said that only the major railroads have police departments, including Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and CSX, while others rely on local law enforcement agencies.

Crowl said that half the people struck by trains are killed.

In 2018, there were eight people struck by trains, and five of them fatally.

In 2020, there were 11 people struck by trains in Michigan, four of them fatally, according to the FRA.

In one such June 2020 incident, a man in Ingham County was sitting between the tracks at night and fatally struck by an oncoming train.

Suicide is the reason for some of the deaths.

For example, a December 2019 FRA incident report described how a 50-year-old man sat between the tracks in front of an oncoming train in Royal Oak.

Kate Hardy, the founder of 6 Feet Over, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization based in Detroit, said, “Men choose much more of a violent death than women do.”

She added that suicide by train is not always the first option.

Hardy said that men in their 50s and 60s have a high suicide rate due to a change in their identity caused by retirement, or change of income.

To prevent trespasser deaths, Crowl said that there needs to be better enforcement of trespassing laws from state and local police departments and action needs to be taken for the safety of individuals.

Crowl said he tells police departments that if they see something, they should do something.

DeGraff said education is the most effective safety effort.

For example, he said Norfolk Southern has public awareness campaigns to explain safe behavior around the tracks.

The trains have preventative measures as well.

“We have equipped all of our trains with cameras and use our train horns at all crossings, per FRA guidelines.” said DeGraff.

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