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January 22, 2010

Amtrak fatality revisited

It was Jan. 7, just two weeks ago, that I visited the Middle River community where 14-year-old Anna Marie Stickel was killed when struck by an Amtrak train while walking along the tracks on the way to Kenwood High School. During that visit, I had the opportunity to inspect some of the fences that supposedly separate the public froom the tracks, and to find some of the gaps that had been created over the years by people wanting to cut through.

One of those  cut-through points was one off an alley not far from Kenwood. A well-worn path signaled that it had been used for years by local residents -- most  likely high school kids -- seeking a shortcut.

During that visit, two days after Anna's death, there was a brand-new fix in place -- apparently added in response to the tragedy. But my impression at the time was that it was an amateurish job at best -- held together by a metal strip that could be removed by hand with no more difficulty than popping the top on a  soda can. The fence that had been repaired looked worn and shoddy.

Earlier today, I got an opportunity to revisit the site. Sure enough, the metal strip had been removed and left in a ditch. The repaired section of fence had been peeled back to open a gap. The shortcut was  back in operation.

There are two ways to look at this turn of events. You can accept the typical railroad industry laments about  the  supposed impossibility of securing the tracks against a nation of vandals. Or you can ask why Amtrak couldn't make a more  effective repair -- one that would have at least required the trespasser to bring a hefty wirecutter.

Protecting railroad tracks from intruders isn't easy. Nobody should underestimate how much of a challenge it is. But when you look at the condition of the fences in the Middle River area -- and their total absence in places -- you have  to wonder whether Amtrak is even trying.

Hello, it's 2010. Can't we build a better chain link fence than we did  iin the 1970s?


Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:12 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads


In my opinion, Amtrak isn't going to do anymore than they have to. They probably feel as though it isn't their fault that people are crossing these tracks and losing their lives. If the fencing isn't preventing people from being killed, why not find other ways to prevent this from happening? All around Maryland we have the noise barrier walls so that communities are sheltered from hearing traffic. Why can't the walls be placed along the tracks instead of fencing that can be easily tampered with? They are not looking for alternate solutions because unfortunately Amtrak can't be sued as long as signs are posted stating not to cross. If they were held responsible for the deaths, they would find protection to prevent these unfortunate incidents.

I understand how people could blame Amtrak, but at the same time you have to look at both sides of the problem.
The railroad has been there since at least the 1930's, so you can't say that the people in the area do not know the dangers. People need to educate children of the dangers of being on or around railroad tracks. I cannot understand why anyone would wear a set of headphones and walk on railroad tracks, nor can I understand why a friend walking with that girl would let her do that.
Also, fence or no fence trespassing is still breaking the law, and I do know that there are signs posted in that area that do say that. Instead of using taxpayers money to build walls (that will probably be broken through anyway) why not spend a lot less tax money and start educating children in schools about the dangers of railroad tracks.
I'm sorry if I seem crude but when a horrible tradgedy like this happens people always want to throw blame rather than find a logical solution to the problem. Seriously, if someone got hit by a car, would you want to build walls to keep them from crossing the street?
Finally, I do know for a fact that Amtrak pays out millions of dollars a year in lawsuits and settlements to families of trespasser fatalitys. But by then it is too late, you can't buy back someones life. So in conclusion, once again why not just teach young people about these dangers? Instead of hiding them.

Railroads throughout the nation will tell you: Build a tougher fence, and they'll cut through that. Build a wall, and they'll break it down or tunnel under it. Build a fence down the middle of the track, and people will still take their chances.

No, the only real solution is a pedestrian overpass or underpass. And the railroad was there first. I propose that this should be paid for by either the developers that put the houses out there, or the county government that approved such building without the nexcessary accommodations being imposed upon said developers.

Notwithstanding the fact that the writer got the facts wrong--Amtrak merely leases the right to use the tracks, and does not own them--it's not the railroad's responsibility to correct illegal behavior by youths.

Trespassing on railroad property is a state crime. Where are the parents in all of this? When a child plays in the street, is it the city's fault for having the roadway where it is?

A little personal responsibility goes a long way. Please stop excusing illegal, ignorant behavior.

Actually, Ted, in the case of the Northeast Corridor where the latest two pedestrian fatalities occurred, Amtrak DOES indeed own the track and right-of-way. It's most of the rest of the nation where Amtrak leases trackage rights. (Exceptions: Philadelphia-Harrisburg and a short stretch in Michigan.)

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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