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Speeches

Forum: Trains and Trespassing: Ending Tragic Encounters - Opening Statement
Robert L. Sumwalt
NTSB Conference Center, Washington, DC
3/24/2015

​Good morning.
 
Welcome to the board room of the National Transportation Safety Board and to this forum.
 
My name is Robert Sumwalt, and I’m a member of the NTSB. It is my privilege to chair this forum on a topic that is critically important: the issue of pedestrians being struck by trains.
 
Joining me on the dais is Rick Narvell, from our Office of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Investigations, who led the efforts of the NTSB staff to plan and organize this forum.
 
I know there may be those in our audience and watching via webcast who have lost loved ones on the railroad tracks, and I want to extend my personal condolences to you on behalf of myself and the entire NTSB. I also know that others here today have been seriously injured, or have a loved one who was seriously injured, in such an accident.
 
We know that nothing we can say here today can take away the pain of these tragic encounters. But please know that the whole reason we’ve called this forum is to prevent others from suffering similar losses in the future.
 
Rail trespassing is the single leading cause of death in rail transportation.
 
According to Operation Lifesaver, rail trespassing deaths surged 22% last year, compared to the year before. As we will hear later this morning, more than 900 rail trespassers were struck by trains last year and more than half of them were killed. That means that between now and when this forum adjourns at noon tomorrow, statistically speaking, around 4 people will be struck by trains and 2 of them will die.
 
With that perspective this forum will be focused on ending these tragic encounters between trains and pedestrians.
 
While the NTSB is presently investigating several high-profile grade-crossing collisions – two of which occurred last month - and while we have advocacy and outreach activities planned in support of grade-crossing safety, this forum is focused on preventing pedestrian trespassing.
 
Let me put a fine point on this: trespassing is both against the law, and potentially tragic.
 
Walking along railroad tracks – it’s trespassing.
 
Taking a short-cut across the tracks – it’s trespassing.
 
Sitting on railroad property nearby the tracks - it’s trespassing.
 
It is against the law and it is a crime that could cost you your life. I can’t say it more bluntly than that.
But even though it’s against the law, I suspect that almost everybody’s done it, or knows somebody who has.
 
A number of years ago, there was a man named Carl who used to do odd jobs around my neighborhood. I got to know him pretty well. I even sold him an old car that I no longer was using.
 
My wife and I were shocked to pick up the newspaper one day and read that Carl had been struck and killed by a train.  My wife’s first question was one that neither the newspaper nor I could answer: Why was Carl on the tracks in the first place?
 
And for a while later, every time I walked by a gutter that Carl had helped me clear or a fence that Carl had fixed, that same question came to mind.
 
Why do people trespass on railroad tracks?
 
As you will hear today, the answers are diverse.
 
I imagine that most who walk along railroad tracks really don’t even think that they are breaking the law. Perhaps many don’t realize the danger, thinking - surely they hear an approaching train.  Others glamorize the risk, and seek it on purpose. Last week, for the second time this year, a fitness guru lost his life near the railroad tracks in the process of making a fitness video.
 
They were not the only ones who were recent victims of attempts to capture the romanticism of railroads by trespassing while taking movies or pictures. We have completed our investigation into last year’s tragic encounter between a train and a film crew in Jesup, Georgia, and today we will be releasing our investigative report. The 27 year old lady killed in that accident was from my hometown in South Carolina. And even ordinary people stop to pose for “selfies” on railroad tracks, sometimes even with their families.
 
Others take short-cuts across the tracks so often that they forget the danger.
 
And sadly, some trespassers are purposely taking their own lives.
 
As we’ll hear later this morning, the consequences of these events go far beyond what happens to those who are struck. They ripple through families, train crews, and even communities. 
 
So before going on, I would like to take this opportunity to directly address anybody watching these proceedings.
 
Railroad trespassing takes too many lives and injures too many people. Don’t be one of them. Please - stay off railroad property. I think that plea is important, even if it only gets through to one person who would otherwise one day end up among the statistics. 
 
But to get at the whole problem we need to understand its scope. We need to understand the diversity of trespassing accidents.  We need to know how law enforcement and the courts treat trespassing, and we need to examine countermeasures that are already in place.
 
Most of all, we need to begin a serious conversation that goes beyond blame, shakes us out of complacency, and focuses on what we can do to keep people away from the tracks in the future.
 
At the NTSB, we’re interested in ending railroad trespassing because railroad trespassing ends lives.
 
We hope that a new kind of conversation can begin today and tomorrow, leading to some real progress.
 
I will now turn to Rick Narvell.
 
Mr. Narvell.
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