Other Voices

Rail crew’s nightmare on the tracks

The picture of the passenger bus in Mexico that was hit recently by a Kansas City Southern de Mexico freight train is horrific.

The same with the New York commuter train that struck a vehicle on the tracks and killed seven.

And last month in Larimore, N.D., a freight train hit a school bus, killing two people and injuring several others.

Outside of hitting a gasoline tanker truck on a crossing, a school bus full of children inspires the most absolute terror to someone sitting in a locomotive.

I should know, because I was in a locomotive cab when a loaded school bus taking children home from class drove across a crossing in front of our Burlington Northern locomotives hauling 100 empty coal cars.

We were not going to stop in time.

It was spring 1980, and I was working out of Alliance, Neb. We were bringing back coal cars to be loaded in Wyoming.

We had left Ravanna, Neb., and were traveling through a small town at about 50 mph. I was in the brakeman’s seat on the left-hand side of the locomotive as we approached a number of grain silos on both sides of the track.

The engineer was blowing his horn as we came through the town approaching a grade crossing. The horns were echoing off of the silos.

I saw it first: A school bus with children, with windows open and children laughing.

There were probably 30 children on the bus. The driver, an older woman, drove right past the crossbuck warning sign onto the tracks.

I hollered “SCHOOL BUS!” But I knew it would be too late.

The bus driver suddenly realized what she was doing and slammed the bus into reverse. She backed off the crossing with about 6 inches to spare. I’ll never forget her anxiety-ridden face.

She knew how close she had come to producing a tragedy that the town would never forget.

The engineer and I talked about it the rest of the way into Alliance. We were somber when we got off the train.

Even 35 years later, I still remember it like it was yesterday.

The crews in Mexico, New York and North Dakota must suffer significantly thinking about what happened and whether there was anything they could’ve done to prevent their train from striking the vehicle.

In most cases, there’s not.

With steel wheels on steel rails and the momentum of loaded (or even unloaded) railcars, train crews can only wish they could stop when they see a vehicle on the tracks.

It’s up to drivers to stay clear.

I know it’s been said a million times before, but use extra caution when you’re going across railroad tracks, especially rural tracks where there’s only a crossbuck sign.

We don’t need another railroad tragedy.

William J. Brotherton is a former railroad brakeman/conductor and trainmaster with the Burlington Northern Railroad (now BNSF) and is now an attorney in Highland Village.