Deaths by train a troubling SEPTA trend

Two weeks ago, two pedestrians were struck by SEPTA trains within an hour of each other in separate incidents, which was described as a “tragic coincidence” by a spokesperson.

Fortunately, both passengers – a 16-year-old boy and a man in his 20s – survived. To thousands of commuters in the region, the accidents were mere inconveniences that put a wrinkle in their trip home. For SEPTA officials, the day was a startling reminder of one thing: more has to be done to educate the public about the danger of the rails.

“These were the lucky ones, if you want to consider the damage they’re going to deal with the rest of their lives lucky,” said Jim Fox, SEPTA’s director of System Safety and Risk Management. “They’ll see another day.”

In 2011, SEPTA had 15 pedestrian fatalities on the rails, up from 10 in 2010 and 2009. This year, they have had nine deaths.

While Fox said he does not know the reason for the spike, many of the deaths have been ruled suicides. Out of the 15 deaths last year, eight were confirmed suicides compared to eight confirmed suicides in the previous two years combined.

“It’s not even really just at SEPTA, this is a national issue right now,” said Fox, who recently returned from an industry conference on the issue of trespassing. “Everyone’s been struggling with the statistics [continuing] to rise, even though there’s a tremendous effort on the part of the properties to better educate and partner and talk to riders in the community about the dangers.”

SEPTA is concerned enough about the issue that General Manager Joe Casey took to publishing a full-page ad in Metro to remind passengers about the dangers. SEPTA’s letter came three months after New Jersey Transit launched an awareness campaign with public service announcements following the deaths of three teenagers in October 2011.

Whether the new emphasis will ultimately change pedestrian behavior remains to be seen, but Fox said SEPTA will keep beating the drum.

SEPTA’s three E’s of safety

Transit agencies are advised to address system safety with the three Es: education, engineering and enforcement.

Fox said SEPTA has installed fencing, along with audio and visual signals, at many of its Regional Rail stations, but noted that the agency fence the entire property, citing cost and the need for access in the event of an emergency.

In terms of enforcement, Fox said it is nearly impossible for the authority’s officer to catch up with those caught trespassing. “By the time our engineer sees it and calls it in and they dispatch a police officer, 90 percent of the time the trespasser is gone by then.”

SEPTA has also begun a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania to create a map of reported trespassing incidents so that safety officials can identify possible patterns, Fox said.

Eyewitness account of a suicide

It was shortly after midnight on March 14. I was on the final SEPTA train of the night bound for Trenton, sitting in the front car about six rows from the engineer’s small driving compartment. It was a sparsely populated train, as they often are that late.

We were on a dark stretch between Cornwell Heights and Croyden where the Regional Rail line can reach around 70 miles per hour.

After a short blast of the train’s horn, the train hit something. The engineer yelled in agony. Then he cursed and threw the brakes on. The handful of people in the front train car looked around. We put two-and-two together pretty quickly. Within seconds, a conductor rushed to the engineer’s compartment. The train took about half a mile to come to a stop. Looking out the window, you could make out dim light from Interstate 95 off to the west, but otherwise shrouded in darkness. Inside the train, a discomfort swallowed us. We’d all just heard a person killed by a speeding train.

Initially, the conductor said it might be awhile as we waited for police and emergency workers to arrive. But a northbound Amtrak train luckily was passing by and slowed to take the 50 SEPTA passengers to the remaining four stops. The conductor later told me it wasn’t the first time for the engineer. By the sound of his carnal yell, you apparently never get over something like that.

The man who died, Franklin Huber, 39, was from Bensalem, which is where the train struck him. Cops found a 40-ounce bottle of beer still three-quarters full and a few cigarette butts at the scene. He didn’t wait to finish his beer. I don’t think I’ll forget Mr. Huber’s death anytime soon.


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