Most of the concern recently over rail safety in Washington has focused on the risks posed by derailment of oil and coal trains moving through densely populated cities, including Tacoma and Seattle.
The nightmare scenario is a fiery disaster like the one in 2013 that wiped out much of a town in Quebec, killing 47 people.
Those concerns are well-founded – especially since the number of trains transporting highly flammable crude oil through the state has risen 40-fold since 2009. Fifteen mile-long trains haul crude through Pierce County every week, and that number is projected to increase to 45 by 2020.
Although recently there have been some minor derailments in Washington involving oil trains, none has resulted in deaths or explosions. At this point, the main rail safety issue involves pedestrian deaths.
An unprecedented 27 pedestrians were killed last year by trains on Washington tracks, and the state ranked ninth nationally in the number of train-track fatalities in the first nine months of last year. Most were accidents – including the death of runner Cale Tyler in November near Ruston Way in Tacoma – but about a third were determined to be suicides.
Some of the 2015 record might be attributed to the greater number of trains now moving through the state. If that’s the case, 2015’s record might not last long due to the expected increase in all rail traffic in coming years, from freight and commuter rail to Amtrak trains. The Point Defiance Bypass proposal, for instance, would allow Amtrak to add more trains to travel through Tacoma and Lakewood. Those trains could go more than 70 mph through mostly at-grade street crossings.
It was that kind of crossing at North McCarver Street where Tyler was killed, and it presents the greatest potential for danger when pedestrians and drivers try to skirt or beat the crossing gate arms. Other accidents have occurred when people were taking photos or filming near tracks. Youngsters are at risk when they put coins on tracks to be flattened, then dash out to retrieve them, unaware of a second train coming at them from the other direction.
As News Tribune letter writer Allan M. Warner noted Tuesday, signage alerting pedestrians to a second train on the tracks might save lives. It’s clear that some additional measures are needed to avoid breaking the tragic record set in 2015. The new year has already claimed one life – a Sumner man struck by an Amtrak train Saturday.