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Durham has largest number of people dying in Amtrak-pedestrian accidents in North Carolina


 Photo by Lisa Sorg

Each time I board an Amtrak train, before it pulls away from the station, I quietly say an intention that it not hit anyone or anything along the route.

Over the last six weeks, I’ve been commuting to Greensboro for work, and some days I take the train, a relaxing 59-minute trip between downtowns. I’ve become in tune with the shifts in the track, what feels right under my feet. When I look out the window and see the Haw River or a steep gulley 30, 40 feet below, I think about how precarious train travel—any travel, really—can be.

Yesterday afternoon I was not on the train, thankfully, when it hit a man on the tracks near North LaSalle Street and Hillsborough Road in west Durham. It turns out that the man, whose name hasn’t been released, is the 10th person in Durham who has died while on the railroad tracks after being hit by Amtrak passenger trains in the past three years.

In fact, Durham accounts for 28 percent of all railroad fatalities in North Carolina involving people walking on the tracks and Amtrak trains. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, from January 2012 through October 2015, the latest figures available, there were 32 such cases; Durham had nine, the most in the state. (I’m counting yesterday’s accident as the 10th.)

Alamance County ranks second, with eight people killed.

Download Trespassers_fatalities (Excel document)

This doesn’t mean that Durham train tracks are inherently more dangerous than those in other counties; this city was built around the railroad, and thus the tracks run through a lot of neighborhoods and populated areas. People who walk on the tracks are known as “trespassers,” because the railroad is private property. And many of us have trespassed, myself included, particularly downtown.

I dug more deeply into the federal safety data, which logs every injury and fatality that occurs on the tracks, both inside and outside the train, passengers and railroad employees. I limited my search to Amtrak (as opposed to freight lines): Of the 32 fatalities in North Carolina over the last three years, seven of them were teenagers. One person was between 76 and 80 years old.

Most people were walking when the train hit them, although three were lying down, two were sitting and two were standing. 

Depressing figures, no doubt, but I found some levity in the data, which is logged on an official 55A form. In 2014, for example, of the 37 non-fatal incidents in North Carolina, several were from insect bites or bruises when people lost their balance and fell or hit something—easy to do when you’re walking down the aisle when the train is moving. 

There is some levity in the data: Injuries have included a finger injury from a chess table and a bruised chest from a falling snack pack.

In one case, an Amtrak worker was scratched on the forehead by a passenger in Guilford County ; another passenger in Halifax County injured her finger on the chess table. A person had an anxiety attack in Durham, also understandable if you’ve ever been delayed on any kind of public transit. 

Download 2014 _amtrak_injuries_fatalities

In 2015, there were 117 injury reports, half of them occurring during one accident in March, when an Amtrak train hit a semi-truck that became stuck on the tracks in Halifax County. No one was killed in that accident, but 55 of the 212 passengers on board, and several Amtrak workers, suffered bruises, cuts and broken bones.

Download 2015_amtrak_injuries_fatalities

I’ve often wondered how Amtrak workers deal with the psychological stress after a serious accident. They do suffer from stress-related trauma; the reports indicate that these workers are allowed time away from the job to recover.

As for the woman in Richmond County who was bruised after a snack pack fell into her lap, I’m pretty sure she’s OK.

I compared these Amtrak figures with those of two freight lines that run through North Carolina: CSX and Norfolk Southern. The former reported 50 trespasser casualties; the latter 29.

When you figure in the freight reports with Amtrak, Durham and Alamance counties are tied for third in the state, with 10 (and Durham now with 11 deaths and injuries) since 2012. Mecklenburg County is is first with 15 injuries and fatalities, and Guilford County with 13.


Frank Hyman

Part of the problem sadly is sometimes suicide and sometimes drunkeness and people passing out on the warm tracks on a cool night, etc. But that's not always the explanation. A more easily fixed part of the problem is the train's horn--it's not always effective because it's not variable enough to penetrate a track-walker's consciousness (drunk or sober) when they aren't focussed on watching for trains.

Don't believe me? Think about the changes in pitch of the sirens for cop cars, fire engines and ambulances: keening high pitches; rumbling low pitches; changes in tempo. As opposed to the simple wailing sirens of yesterday, modern sirens have enough variation to capture your attention. I don't think the newer siren sounds were made more complex as an aesthetic choice. The wide ranging pitch and tempo changes are able to penetrate the mindless trances a pedestrian or driver might be in, so they can get the hell out of the way and reduce fatalities, injuries, delays, etc.

The train companies need to adopt the same low-cost approach. One that would save lives and reduce delays and costs as well.

Train horns are different than modern sirens in that they have a nearly constant pitch and tone. If you're not looking down the tracks and you're engaged in thought or some other activity, the steady horn sound quickly becomes background noise.

I became aware of this about a decade ago, when I was hanging a banner from the trestle near Brightleaf (not legal, but a tolerated and common enough practice in Durham). I was just finishing tying it to the rail and soberly standing on the diamond-plate footbridge next to the rails when the rush of wind from a freight train caught my attention. I wasn't in danger of being hit, but close enough to wonder how the fuck I wasn't aware of this approaching hazard.

I've spent most of my life outdoors in woods, on the water and in urban outdoor environments, sometimes in dangerous situations and have a keen awareness of what's going on around me, so I was pretty shocked by what had happened and wondered how i hadn't noticed the approach of the train. Standing there, thinking back I realized that I had been hearing the train's horn for about a minute, but the relative constancy of the sound had relegated it to the same level of background noise as the rising and falling sounds of car traffic below me. I heard it, but it didn't register.

Bottom line: if Amtrak and Norfolk Southern invest in the kind of sirens/horns similar to what first responders use, the number of fatalities, injuries, delays, etc. will fall dramatically.

Frank Hyman

PS: Cue the poorly thought out comments by those with such a poor command of the facts that they resort to using pseudonyms rather than their full names (which may also conceal their encampment in their mother's basement while posting in their dirty underwear as they wait for their mom to do their laundry).

John Martin

Anyone care to hazard a guess how the proposed light rail system will add to the total fatalities? There will be a whole new set of tracks and many more trains every day. They will be going up Erwin Road at grade level, and then crossing Buchanan Blvd., Gregson St., Duke St., and Chapel Hill St. at grade level. Then they will travel down Pettigrew St. at grade level crossing Blackwell St., Mangum St., Roxboro St., Dillard St., and Fayetteville St., again at grade level.

Amanda Smith

So interesting. Thanks. Something I wish someone (you?) would investigate is the dangerous substances being carried through the middle of town. It seems to me eventually we will have to build bypasses to keep hazardous materials out of downtown. A railroad bypass would surely be cheaper than the highway bypasses people build at the drop of a hat. Do you know anything about this?

Jeff Bakalchuck

@John Martin

Sadly, GoTriangle rejected Terry Rekeweg's very sensible alternative routing, that counted among it's benefits a few dozen fewer grade crossings.

Of course it will probably be sometime in the late 2030's before the first light rail trains run, so GoTriangle has time to figure out to stop people from walking on the tracks.


Maybe we add trains every 15 minutes that take 600' (2 football fields) to come to a stop.
Would that help lower the risk?


I see people crossing the tracks near the Durham bus station regularly. They use it as a short cut for one reason. That reason is called laziness. As unfortunate as it is, I do think that fencing off the tracks for the downtown portion of Durham might be necessary. It would be an eyesore but maybe it would finally end the problem once and for all. No amount of signs seem to do the trick. Maybe stationing police officers to patrol the tracks and warn the trespassers to get off be enough in deterring folks. They are already technically not allowed to be on the tracks so enforcement or further deterrance is how we keep them off. As others have said, this problem will most likely get worse when the light rail shows up. Something needs to be done. I don't buy the argument that train horns are the issue. Unless you are inside a building with good noise insulation you can hear them from pretty much anywhere downtown. They are plenty loud. It's not a train problem so much as a people problem in my opinion.

Brian Hawkins

It certainly seems that Durham is in a bad sort of "sweet spot" for this, being a city built around the railroad, just big and urban enough to have a decent amount of pedestrian activity, but probably not big and urban enough to justify the infrastructure investment of putting the tracks underground or re-routing them as in other historically rail-centric cities (Atlanta, Seattle, and Chicago come to mind).

Fencing would certainly be unsightly, but a hell of a lot cheaper than any of the other options.


I have never understood why even the most educated of people would break the law and risk their lives for a shortcut. Yet, I'm reading their article...


Here's a crazy idea:

Re-route the railroad. From Fayetteville to 9th St, move the NCRR corridor to the northern edge of NC 147 right of way, This frees up a remarkable amount of land - by my count 30-40 acres - in a corridor with a critical shortage of supply. Using recent downtown acreage multiples, that's potentially $100m of land - in Raleigh, it'd be worth double that - so no chump change.

There are grade and ramp issues along 147, but you could probably elevate new track half of the 2 mile length and minimize conflicts. I suspect elevation wouldn't be that much more expensive than fixing existing corridors (which have no revenue benefit, and, well, look like crap). Re-routing would get rid of this 250' wide eye sore that divides the city.

Plus, we've probably lost TRILLIONS in box trucks, right? ( Think of the savings to the Appliance Center alone.


The railroad does not need to be rerouted. Construction costs are very high right now and I really don't think those figures add up for the supposed benefit (of course I'm not including the bridge reference that was obviously a joke) for the NC Railroad to change course. It would not be nearly as simple as you described, Al. Not everything needs to be done for a direct revenue benefit either. Due to what can only be described as human error improvements are needed for the existing corridor for the greater good. Blaming everything other than the unchecked desire and ease in which people can irresponsibly get on the tracks is not going to change the status quo.

Brian Hawkins

There's likely someone who can weigh in on this with more concrete numbers, but my understanding is that routing heavy rail is tricky in hilly country, because the tolerance for sloping is very, very low. So scooting it over to the north side of 147 is probably a lot more complicated and expensive (assuming it is in some way possible at all) than you think.


Grade has to be 1:100, which means that any solution would be elevated. I don't doubt that it's expensive. I do know that reconstructing the cross streets and building bridges over this existing 2 miles stretch is ALSO expensive. And that the reconstruction of old infrastructure in place can sometimes be more expensive than building new. In Tampa, they built and elevated freeway for $14m a lane mile (in existing ROW). There's that. I concur with Rick that it's not about revenue benefit. We have a downtown, which contrary to popular opinion isn't THAT great, and could be much much better. We are (mostly) out of land, we face skyrocketing residential and commercial lease rates, and we have a complete waste of 20 acres smack in the middle of it. There's an opportunity to address it all.

Independent of cost, it would just make for a better downtown.


How about some pedestrian infrastructure so that people have safer and more convenient ways to get around and won't want to use the tracks as a "shortcut?"

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