Every now and then, I hear about a devastating pedestrian versus train accident in Bellingham. They are nearly always fatal for the individual struck by the train, and sadly, sometimes deliberate, like this recent suicide. Since train tracks run directly through Bellingham and many trains pass through Whatcom County on a daily basis, it is reassuring to know that for the most part we share space with trains well. However, Bellingham shares many streets with train tracks and holds many unmarked crossings. It is important to highlight some laws and tips that both pedestrians and railroad companies must abide by.
Railroad tracks in our Washington state are considered the property of the railroad company, so anyone traveling on them is trespassing unless a person is crossing at an established easement. Obviously, when streets cross tracks at a railroad crossing, no one on them would be considered trespassing. Stray just a few feet away, however, and that is no longer true.
Railroad companies have a duty to keep people from crossing their tracks. They must warn trespassers of the danger of train activity and take measures to keep people from trespassing. There is, however, a lot of leeway on how that duty is carried out. Often, a posted “No Trespassing” sign is considered sufficient warning, but the railroad company may put up fencing as well. I think of the path that takes hikers to Clayton Beach just south of Bellingham in the Chuckanuts. It runs right across the train tracks, and is currently closed due to inadequate sight lines for pedestrians to cross safely, according to the page devoted to the hike on Washington Trails Association. Hearing that this popular trail is closed hits home how dangerous trains are – even if they’re not technically deemed “monsters”.
Here are some guidelines for pedestrians on safely crossing train tracks:
- Stay aware and alert. Avoid using headphones, music or even conversation while near train tracks. Distracted walking is never safe, especially on train tracks, such as in this devastating accident that killed a Bellingham man.
- Stop, look both ways and listen, just as you would crossing a street.
- Follow all signage and instructions.
- Cross tracks only at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings.
- Cross quickly, and never stop on train tracks.
- Cross at a 90 degree angle, or perpendicular, to the tracks if you are traveling with or on a bike, wheelchair, or stroller, as wheels can get stuck in the grooves of the tracks.
And remember this, from Washington State Department of Transportation:
Legally, trains have the right of way. Trains are very heavy and can't stop quickly—even if they're traveling at low speeds. By the time a locomotive engineer can see you or your car, it's nearly always too late for them to stop to avoid hitting you. Trains also can't swerve to avoid you or your car because they travel on tracks. As a result of these facts, trains have the right of way.
For more information: