The Frontier Days train tragedy: Let's prevent the next fatality

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, July 29, 2018

We still don’t know why a 56-year-old Colorado woman stood in the path of Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844 earlier this month as the mainline steam legend hauled the annual Frontier Days train back to Denver. Hopefully, new information will come to light soon to tell us why she made the choice to be where she was and paid with her life. Right now, we just don’t know. And that’s frustrating.

But what we do have is a full understanding of how to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. It is simple. It doesn’t involve costly high-tech gear. It doesn’t involve the federal government, the railroads, or the TSA, PTC, or any other letter combinations.  It doesn’t require months of training, registration, or licensing. It’s nothing the mainline steam operators can change.

What it does mean is being your brother and sister’s keeper, as a friend of mine who just retired from the railroad industry reminded me.

What it does involve is for each of us who goes trackside to watch out for each other. And for the general public who sees through a window into our fascinating world.

What it does require is for each of us to be fully aware of our surroundings and the people nearby.

This is a wakeup call for each of us to be responsible for ourselves and those around us. If someone isn’t familiar with our railroad environment and the dangers that are inherent, then it means having to speak up. And if someone is knowledgeable about what it means to watch trains but isn’t doing it safely, it means saying something. You don’t have to come off as a know it all. Just say what is appropriate for the moment. It may be a polite word, or you may need to shout, “Get off the tracks.”

Cell phones are great, but they pose special hazards, no matter how you’re using them. I was a passenger on the ferry move from Cheyenne to Denver two days before the tragic Frontier Days excursion. I was a guest of the UP, and our hosts made sure to tell us how to be responsible when on railroad property. They warned us not to talk on the phone and walk near the train at the same time – too much risk of losing situational awareness. They gave us good advice.

In June I was at the National Park Service site at Promontory, Utah, where the gold spike marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad. There, with the two operating replicas of the 4-4-0 locomotives the park rangers advised the visitors to stand back 15 feet. Yes, I said, 15 feet. This for locomotives that don’t move much faster than walking speed. In a day and age when Americans are more distracted than ever and the general public knows little about how things work, 15 feet sounds just fine to me.


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