At this time last year, the railroads were proudly calling 2012 their safest year ever as derailments and crossing accidents kept declining. But last year, the number of trespassing deaths rose by 47, or 11 percent, to 476, and the number of deaths in accidents increased nearly 8 percent to 250.
Although the rates vary from year to year and there are only theories to explain last year's increase, it prompted federal regulators to develop a public campaign aimed at reducing accidents. Ads being released Tuesday are focusing on how people and vehicles stand no chance against a train.
"We need to make sure people understand the danger they're putting themselves in on the rails," said Joyce Rose, CEO of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about railroad hazards.
It's difficult to determine what was behind the death increase in 2013, but Rose believes it may be related to smartphones and other electronic devices.
"We're a distracted population," Rose said.
The main television commercial for the new campaign, dubbed "See Tracks? Think Train," shows a young man walking on railroad tracks while wearing headphones and not realizing a train is coming.
Mark Kalina, who lost parts of both legs in a train accident, supports the message.
The 24-year-old said he knew he made a bad decision when he tried to walk around a stopped train to get to his apartment in Columbus, Ohio, after he'd been out with friends in October 2012. The train started moving, and Kalina's shirt got caught. But after climbing aboard the train to free his shirt, Kalina fell under the train.
Kalina, who hopes to return to Ohio State in the fall to compete his degree, wants others to learn from his mistake.
"It just takes one bad time to possibly end your life," Kalina said.
The effort is also backed by the Association of American Railroads trade group, major railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration.
Despite the increase in deaths in 2013, regulators note that railroad safety has significantly improved over the past decade by most measures. Between 2004 and 2013, for example, the number of trespassing deaths went up about 3 percent.
The Federal Railroad Administration said the number of injuries and deaths from trespassing fluctuates from year to year based on factors such as construction near train tracks or increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Kansas City Southern railroad engineer Russ W. Fletcher said he hopes this campaign will help people make better decisions at railroad crossings and around train tracks. He noted that railroad employees involved in accidents, especially fatal ones, also are affected.
"The memories never go away," said Fletcher, who lives in Joplin, Mo. "It's horrific for everyone."
The 58-year-old veteran railroad engineer said he has even had near misses with police officers who disobey train crossing signals.
"We have very intelligent people making a bad decision every day," Fletcher said.
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