By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Johnson City has been a railroad town since its inception, but a resurgence of activity in the downtown district over the past decade has brought a new generation of folks back within close proximity to the train tracks that run through the heart of the city.
While most folks know the laws when it comes to crossing streets on foot, the rules for safely crossing the active train tracks downtown are less known. Unfortunately, that ignorance has led to three deaths in Johnson City over the past year and a half.
Those fatalities led representatives from the Norfolk Southern Railroad Police Department to come to Johnson City last Wednesday to work in conjunction with the Johnson City Police Department to help educate folks about the dangers associated with walking along the train tracks or crossing at areas other than designated crossings.
“It’s a booming town right now, so the more people you get, the harder it is to find a parking spot,” said Hugh McCormack, manager of special investigations for the Norfolk Southern Railroad Police Department. “When you do find a parking spot, you want to get to your destination as quickly as possible, and a lot of times that means cutting across the railroad tracks.
“We run into people all the time that say, ‘I did not realize it was illegal to cross where I was crossing.’ The biggest thing is getting the word out.”
McCormack and his team joined officers from the JCPD to canvas downtown Johnson City last Wednesday. The officers traveled along the tracks talking to citizens about the risks of crossing train tracks by foot and also left pamphlets at local businesses to be distributed to customers who visit the downtown district.
Trains make their way through downtown Johnson City and travel along a route that is in close proximity to ETSU and the Mountain Home VA campus.
“We have nine scheduled trains each day in Johnson City, but a train can come through at any time,” said Michael Frogg, a supervisory special agent with Norfolk Southern. “The fact is, a lot of people use these tracks as a shortcut. That is illegal and dangerous.”
McCormack said most folks who walk along the tracks or cross illegally don’t know they’re trespassing on railroad property and often aren’t fully aware of the risk their behavior carries with it.
“An average train doing 55 miles per hour will take at least a mile to come to a complete stop,” McCormack said. “It’s not like an automobile where you can slam your brakes and come to a complete stop or swerve out of the way. When it comes to a train, they’re on set tracks and they have to go straight.”
McCormack said officers will generally issue a warning the first or second time somebody is caught on the railroad tracks outside a designated crossing area – which is usually outfitted with a crosswalk, a gate, bells and flashing lights – but charges can be issued for trespassing on the railroad’s property, and local law enforcement is authorized to issue citations to those who violate the law.
The literature officers distributed in Johnson City last Wednesday included some important reminders for folks who find themselves in close proximity to railroad tracks. First, standing on or near tracks for photographs is extremely dangerous. Also, those who are waiting to cross the tracks until a train passes should stand back at least 15 feet. Finally, anyone jogging or walking close to railroad tracks should avoid using headphones so they can be aware of the presence of an approaching train.