See Tracks? Think Train!

By Jim McKeel

When approaching a railroad crossing, the first thing a driver will see is a round yellow warning sign.  As the motorist gets closer to the crossing there will be a white “crossbuck” sign just a few feet before the railroad tracks.  Being white in color, the “crossbuck” sign is a “regulatory sign” and it means to yield the right of way to the train.  The crossing might also have red flashing lights and gates that activate as a train approaches the crossing.  The flashing red lights, when activated, require a motorist to stop before crossing the tracks and only proceed if and when it is safe to do so.  If a train is an imminent danger, the motorist must stop and remain stopped until the train has passed.  If the crossing has gates that lower when a train is approaching, it is illegal to proceed across that crossing when the gates are coming down, are in the lowered position, or are in the process of going back up.  A driver should make a habit of slowing down and looking both directions down the railroad tracks as they approach any railroad crossing to see if there might be a train approaching.  “See tracks?  Think train!
A train can be travelling in either direction down a set of railroad tracks at any time.  An Operation Lifesaver saying is “anytime is train time.”  Trains are large and heavy vehicles.  They could be a mile long and weigh as much as 12 million pounds.  If that train is travelling around 55 miles per hour, it can take a mile or more to get that train stopped.  The train cannot swerve to avoid a collision.  It goes where the tracks take it.  The only thing the Engineer on the train can do when he or she notices that a collision might occur is to apply the brakes and hope that the motorist will see the train and react accordingly to avoid the collision.  Unfortunately, with the long distance required to stop a heavy train, by the time the Engineer sees an obstruction and applies the brakes, it may be, and probably is, too late to avoid striking that object if it does not get out of the way of the train.
Complacency is another factor in many highway vehicle/train collisions.  Would you believe that most of these collisions happen within 25 miles of the driver’s home?  Of course that is where they do most of their driving, but the driver also crosses familiar crossings near their home many times and most of the time they may not see a train on those tracks.  The driver becomes complacent over time and they get to the point where they don’t expect to see a train.  They don’t actively look for a train as they approach the tracks.  Then, one day, there is a train, they don’t see it, and a collision occurs.  The occupant of a car is 20 times more likely to die in a collision with a train than in a collision with another motor vehicle.
A person walking along or crossing railroad tracks is too often struck and killed by a train because they were distracted by listening to music with headphones or talking/texting on their phone or perhaps while riding an ATV or motorcycle on railroad property.  Did you know that the property along railroad tracks is private property owned by the railroad company?  It is, therefore, illegal to be on that railroad property unless you have permission to be there.  That person could be charged with trespassing; or worse yet, could be severely injured or killed if they got in front of a moving train.  The only legal place to cross railroad tracks is at a public street or pedestrian crossing.   

Jim McKeel is a retired law enforcement officer, an authorized volunteer with Operation Lifesaver, a member of the Kansas Operation Lifesaver board of directors and a railroad Conductor and Locomotive Engineer.


  1. Anonymous9/26/2014

    Thank You for this article! I live and have lived by RR tracks my entire life and cannot put enough emphasis on the importance of stopping and looking down the tracks before crossing them. Living next to them, I can tell you they do not go thru at the same time every day. So, with saying that, expect the unexpected! Thanks again!

  2. Tom H.9/26/2014

    Thanks for this reminder Jim. I have a great respect for trains and the info you provide backs that up. They're heavy and have a lot of mass behind them -- stoppping is no easy chore.

    It amazes me how often we hear about a car stalling on the RR tracks. That is the absolute WORST place to experience car trouble.

    I'm with you: See Tracks? Think Train.