At the beginning of Wednesday's railroad trip to Lewistown, a Norfolk Southern Railway official warned riders about little things: Hold on when walking down the aisle; don't trip when getting up from a seat; fill coffee cups only halfway to prevent sloshing hot liquid.
But the bigger purpose of the trip on the mainline from Altoona to Cresson to Lewistown and back was to warn of bigger things: like a 10,000-ton freight train at grade crossings.
"Our equipment is unforgiving," said Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband on the trip to promote railroad safety. "The consequences are usually fatal."
(Mirror photo by William Kibler)
A Norfolk Southern train passes a railroad crossing Wednesday during an educational trip on railway safety from Altoona to Cresson to Lewistown.
He said a train against a car is like a car against an empty soda can. It doesn't stand a chance.
Along on the trip were officials from Operation Lifesaver, the Federal Railroad Administration, PennDOT, the Public Utility Commission and local police departments.
Operation Lifesaver organizes rides like Wednesday's to give participants the railroad's perspective on rail safety, said Jack Hubbard, Pennsylvania program coordinator.
During the trip, the special coach train pulled by a familiar Norfolk Southern black-and-white freight locomotive whizzed by scores of grade crossings, with the engineer blaring his horn as he approached every one.
It takes 1.5 miles or more to stop a freight train. If the engineer sees you in front of him, it's already too late, officials said.
There are always "crossbuck" warning signs, sometimes warning lights and sometimes turngates at crossings - and always warning blasts from the engineer, said Derrick Mason, a grade crossing safety manager for the railroad.
But he said sometimes people still figure they can beat an approaching train.
The railroad has a three-pronged approach to grade crossing safety - engineering, education and enforcement.
Wednesday's trip was part of the educational initiative.
The engineering prong includes upgrading protection at crossings and once in a while, separating the railway from the highway. But those separation projects cost millions of dollars, Husband said.
Last year in the U.S., 285 people died in 2,384 collisions between trains and motor vehicles. In Pennsylvania, six died in 58 incidents.
Motorists aren't always at fault, according to a 2000 paper titled "Guarded Crossings: An in-depth analysis of the most effective railroad crossing protection" by W.L. Farnham.
He cites accidents involving vehicles designed to eliminate outside noise, crossings with short sight distances for drivers and railcars parked across roads without reflective markers.
Norfolk can't fence all 21,000 route miles or police them 24/7, Husband said. But it can prosecute when it catches someone, officials indicated, speaking of fines for summary offenses and jail time for misdemeanors and felonies.
"At a grade crossing, even if it's a tie - you're going to lose," Husband said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.