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.
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.
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.