Public Safety

Cedar Rapids police focus on rail safety as fatal crashes rise

So far this year in Iowa, 4 have died after struck by trains

Most railroad crossing deaths that have occurred over the past five years across the nation have been at crossings that have some sort of warning like this one — gates, flashing lights, stop signs or cross buck signs. Here, a freight train passes May 19, 2017, by a crossing on Old Bridge Road on a Union Pacific line near General Mills in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)
Most railroad crossing deaths that have occurred over the past five years across the nation have been at crossings that have some sort of warning like this one — gates, flashing lights, stop signs or cross buck signs. Here, a freight train passes May 19, 2017, by a crossing on Old Bridge Road on a Union Pacific line near General Mills in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — As the number of people killed at railroad crossings in the United States inches upward, Cedar Rapids police will participate this week in a national effort to increase rail safety by ticketing and warning violators in prominent locations.

Last year, 270 Americans were killed in crashes at rail crossings, a slight uptick from the 267 deaths the year before, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. There were 255 railroad crossing deaths in 2017.

Between Jan. 1 and July 1 this year, rail crossing mishaps have claimed the lives of a 125 people nationwide.

In Iowa, there have been 22 train track collisions so far this year, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration, and four people have been killed. That is a slight decline from the six deaths in 2018.

During the day Tuesday, Cedar Rapids police said officers will be enforcing traffic laws near two significant crossings:

• The 1500 block of Wilson Avenue SW, where three sets of tracks cross the hilly road in an area where the 30 mph speed limit often is ignored.

• The 300 block of First Avenue SE, a crossing on downtown’s main drag and near the city’s convention center and hotel.

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The city described “Operation Clear Track,” which will be conducted in 48 states this week, as the largest rail safety law enforcement initiative in the nation.

In the crashes in Iowa this year. three people were killed in two separate incidents in April. A fourth person was killed a few months later.

A father and son died in the first crash, which was in Cedar Rapids.

Ethan W. Mortensen, 32, of Ely, was driving a 2012 Chevrolet Equinox with David P. Mortensen, 66, of Ely, as a passenger. The sport utility vehicle was struck April 14 by an eastbound Union Pacific train in the 3000 block of C Street SW.

Authorities believe Ethan, who had a developmental disorder, and his father were watching trains and practicing driving when their SUV wound up on the tracks and was struck by a train traveling about 60 mph.

A few weeks later, Dashaun Washpun, 25, a graduate of City High, was struck and killed by a train about 7:30 p.m. April 26 in southeastern Iowa City. He died at the scene, at a railroad crossing near Scott Avenue and Heinz Road.

A few months later, on July 20, a 26-year-old Des Moines man was killed when police said he attempted to hop onto a train car as the train was passing through downtown Des Moines.

According to witnesses, the man, who police identified as Ian Pfeiffer, walked around the lowered traffic signal arms to try the stunt.

Police said it’s likely the train was going faster than he had anticipated.

Data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows that in Iowa, four people were killed in 2017, one in 2016 and two in 2015 as the result of mishaps at rail crossings.

In most of those deaths, the victims were driving vehicles when struck by trains.

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A majority of the railroad crossing deaths that have occurred over the past five years across the nation have been at crossings that have some sort of warning — gates, flashing lights, stop signs or cross buck signs.

“Half of all collisions at railroad crossings happen at crossings that are equipped with lights and safety equipment,” said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau. “And in a lot of those cases, the person or vehicle that is struck has ignored those devices, and have even gone so far as to maneuver around the lowered safety arms.”

In Iowa, there are 6,758 railroad crossings — 205 of them in Linn County and 139 of them in Johnson County. A majority of Iowa’s crossings sit on public roads and highways, which tend to be better marked than those that cut through private property such as farmland, residential plots and industrial yards.

Regardless of whether a crossing is well-marked or not marked at all, Flatau said drivers, cyclists and pedestrians should always exercise caution when passing over tracks.

Many drivers pay little or no attention at the rail crossings they drive on day after day because they never see a train there, Flatau said. But just because a driver has never seen a train there doesn’t mean it won’t be there one day as the driver is trying to cross.

When locomotive engineers see a vehicle or person on the tracks in the path of the train, they can only sound the warning horn and apply the emergency brakes — but hardly stop on a dime.

The average freight train consisting of 100 cars and weighing between 12 million and 20 million pounds takes more than a mile to stop in emergency braking.

“A lot of the accidents we see could be avoided by staying alert when passing through a crossing and obeying the warning signs and traffic control devices,” Flatau said.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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