An eastbound BSNF freight train speeds through the crossing on Commercial Street in downtown Emporia. A spike in “trespass” fatalities in Emporia during the last decade reflects a national trend. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
At age 85, John Speece was using a walker the afternoon of May 4 to cross the triple railway tracks on Commercial Street in downtown Emporia. He was struck and killed by an eastbound BNSF freight, one of 80 trains that pass through the city day and night, at speeds of up to 40 mph.
Speece is the most recent victim in seven deadly rail accidents in and around Emporia during the past decade, a reflection of a national trend that has seen fatal encounters between trains and pedestrians increase 45 percent since 2012, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. I recently visited the crossing where Speece died, at the south end of the historic business district of my hometown, in an attempt to better understand how the accident might have happened.
The crossing consists of a triple set of tracks. The rails are set into concrete with rubber flanges alongside to help fill the gaps. There are crossbucks with flashing red lights and a clanging warning bell that go off automatically at the approach of a train. Warning gates descend to block the oncoming traffic lanes.
There’s no gate, however, blocking pedestrian paths on the sides of the crossing. On the afternoon of my visit, there was a single bouquet of flowers placed on a guardrail on the east side of the crossing.
In the 15 minutes I was there, an eastbound freight roared through the crossing, blocking the street — which is also state K-99 highway — while motorists lined up on either side waiting for the train to pass. From the first peal of the warning bells and when the red lights began to flash to when the thundering orange and black locomotives enter the crossing, pedestrians have 30 seconds to get to safety, I found by timing the approach of three trains at different times.
Was that also the amount of time Speece, with his walker, had to clear the tracks? Authorities have released few details on the incident and BNSF officials declined to answer my questions about the tragedy.
But I felt sympathy for the train crew that, unable to swerve or stop in time, must have felt helpless as the freight struck Speece. Freights typically have two-person crews in Kansas, an engineer and a conductor, and it’s the engineer whose hand is on the throttle — and the brakes.
The time it takes to stop a train depends upon a complicated set of factors — the length of the train, the speed, whether it has conventional air brakes or distributed power — and it may take the distance of a dozen or more football fields to come to a complete stop, according to a 2019 report by the GAO.
Although the Emporia accident that claimed the life of Speece has not yet been classified by the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency responsible for tracking pedestrian deaths, Speece may be deemed a “trespasser” by law because he was on the tracks when the crossing gates were lowered.
“It’s always going to be presumed it was the driver’s or the pedestrian’s fault in a collision at a rail crossing,” Vicky Moore of the Angels on Track Foundation told me. In 1995, she and her husband, Dennis, lost their 16-year-old son Ryan in a multiple fatality accident at a remote railway crossing in Ohio. They founded the organization to promote safety improvements at crossings and to be advocates for victims, many of whom they feel were blameless, including Ryan.
She described the nationwide practice of labeling victims as trespassers a “get out of jail free” card for the railroads. But, she said, there are many factors to consider when evaluating a rail crossing accident, from visibility to surface maintenance to the presence and condition of warning equipment.
More than 80 trains per day
The public doesn’t know yet where Speece was headed when he was struck by the train because authorities have not released details of the accident investigation. But such accidents, while horrific, are unsurprising for a historic railroad town of 24,000 with heavy rail traffic.
The rails cut through several neighborhoods for blocks on either side of downtown, with 12 of 15 crossings at street level, and the rest consisting of underpasses with limited pedestrian and bicycle access. Three blocks to the east is Fremont Park, where a 122-year-old locomotive, Santa Fe No. 1015, stands on static display overlooking the tracks, which are unfenced. On the other side is a modest but trim white house, just a few yards from the tracks, a dog barking his displeasure at strangers through a screen door.
The city manager, Trey Cocking, says Emporia submitted a federal grant application last December in partnership with BNSF to fund a $1.2 million study on how to improve a two-mile section of Burlington Northern right-of-way through the heart of town. The city is asking the Federal Railway Administration for about $600,000, to be matched by BNSF, to identify “a comprehensive, corridor-based solution for improved crossing options and community access through Emporia,” according to the study.
The goal is to increase safety and reduce vehicle wait times at crossings, Cocking said, perhaps with fencing or elevation. If approved, the grant to study the situation could be the first step in a five-year improvement project.
“The (BSNF line) carries over 80 trains per day,” the application notes, including Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which only passes through town since passenger service here was discontinued in 1997. That’s an average of one train every 18 minutes, and some trains are a mile and a half long. “During meetings with local community leaders, BNSF indicated that the number of trains and train length is anticipated to grow.”
Cocking said BNSF is responsible for maintaining the crossings in town, including the pedestrian pathway at the Commercial Street crossing. He said he’s only been city manager since December 2021, so he doesn’t know the history of previous fatalities of crossings in town, but that what’s he seen in the past year is concerning.
In 2013, the BNSF raised the speed limit for trains through town from 30 mph to 40 mph. While it is unclear whether the increase in speed has contributed to any of the last decade’s trespass fatalities, Cocking did express concern when asked about the speed of trains in Emporia.
“Without have talked to BNSF about it, I will say I’m concerned with the speed that the trains move through town,” Cocking told me. “In my opinion, that’s a dangerous situation, especially for pedestrians.”
He also said that while the city has received no complaints he knows of about the lack of fencing along the tracks at Fremont Park and other places, as a father with small children he was concerned.
Cocking referred me to Andy Williams, his contact at BNSF, for the railroad’s perspective on safety issues in Emporia. Williams told me he could not answer questions on the issue. He directed me to Lena Kent, general director for public affairs. Kent did not respond to a request for an interview.
Rise in ‘trespasser’ fatalities
There have been seven railway fatalities involving “trespassers” in Lyon County since 2013, according to the Federal Railroad Administration accident database. The county ranks fourth in trespass deaths for the past decade for Kansas, behind the metro areas of Sedgwick, with 24 fatalities; Johnson, with 15; and Shawnee, with nine.
The dramatic rise in trespass deaths for Lyon County is on pace with state and national trends. In the previous decade, trespass deaths rose 45 percent nationally, to 588 annually, according to the FRA. In Kansas, deaths nearly tripled for the same period, to 11 in 2022.
The most recent three fatal trespass incidents in Emporia all occurred within the past seven months. These include Speece; John Burton, 26, who police said drove his Chevy Equinox around the crossing gates on Market Street, was struck by a train, and later died at a Topeka hospital; and Rachel Nicole Raymond, a 33-year-old mother of two, a pedestrian killed by an Amtrak passenger train at the Whildin Street crossing.
Previous local pedestrian fatalities for the decade include Nolan Purcell, 33, who was found dead March 1, 2020, on the tracks near the intersection of Road 150 and Road S, east of Emporia; Charles Weston, 46, struck near the East Street crossing; Haylee Frazier, 28, struck on the tracks near Commercial Street; and Michael T. Glaser, 48, struck Oct. 9, 2013, after he fell off his bicycle at the Market Street crossing.
Such “trespasser” incidents are the leading cause of death in rail transportation, according to the FRA. While campaigns from organizations like Operation Lifesaver have successfully spread awareness about the danger rail crossings have for motorists, the rise in pedestrian deaths has resisted similar education measures. A 2013 FRA study found that while anybody was at risk of serious injury or death if ignoring rail safety rules, many decedents were lower-income renters in second-tier cities. More than half were impaired by drugs or alcohol, and nearly a third of trespasser deaths were found to be from probable suicides.
This may account for what seems a dismissive attitude from the public about such deaths, an attitude that perhaps some of those killed were flirting with danger, sought self-annihilation, or reaped the rewards of a lifetime of bad choices. But train-pedestrian accidents disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our communities, those who are fighting their own demons, are at the end of desperate ropes, or are just too poor to afford a car.
In Emporia, history and demographics places a safety burden on neighborhoods adjacent to the tracks. The Santa Fe was the first railway to reach Emporia, in 1870, and since that time the city has always been a rail town, although it is now past its former glory. The old Santa Fe depot burned in 1999, erasing the last reminder of once-robust passenger service.
But while the rail legacy in Emporia makes for fascinating history, we are left with a railway infrastructure that is not only inconvenient when you’re trying to cross the center of town in a car, but also downright deadly if you have to do so on foot.
It’s time to stop stigmatizing the victims of train-pedestrian accidents as trespassers deserving of their fates. While inattention or recklessness contribute to many of these tragedies — just as they do in accidents involving vehicles in rail crossings — increases in train speed, train length, and frequency are also factors.
Emporia and BNSF should accelerate their effort to make a safe rail corridor through the city. Other communities with heavy rail traffic should do the same.
And we should all use just a little more caution when approaching a railway crossing, whether behind the wheel or on foot. Standing at the Commercial Street crossing and feeling the trains through the soles of my boots as they pass has made me realize just how short 30 seconds can be.
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