A new short-line freight operation has resumed an early American railroad tradition by starting its own police force.
The Falls Road Railroad Co., which runs on 41 miles of track between Lockport and Brockport, hired Paul M. Beakman last month as its police chief to maintain security at its operations and those of its parent company, Genesee Valley Transportation Co. of Batavia.
The latter company, formed in 1989, controls 200 miles of track throughout New York State and operates the old Lehigh Valley Railroad Yard in Niagara Falls. The Falls Road subsidiary was added in 1996.
Beakman's knowledge of the area and his familiarity with company property in Western New York, especially in the Lockport area, made him an attractive candidate for the post, according to Falls Road Railroad Superintendent Douglas H. Eisele, who also is superintendent of the Depew, Lancaster & Western Railroad Co., another Genesee Valley subsidiary that Beakman works for.
While his title of "chief special agent in charge of railroad police" conjures up romanticized images of 1800s railroad detectives chasing notorious train robbers like Jessie James and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Beakman's job is quite different.
Presently the company's only police officer, Beakman said, "My job focuses in on things like vandalism, trespassing and illegal dumping on railroad property and the safety of railroad employees and other people.
"The railroad has problems with everything from grade crossing violations (people driving around warning gates at railroad crossings) and the use of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles along railroad beds (which undermines the tracks by churning up the stone base) to kids walking along railroad rights of way and throwing rocks at passing trains."
All of those situations, including hunters parking their vehicles so close to railroad tracks that they sometimes impede a train's progress, can slow down railroad operations, damage railroad property and set the scene for potential disaster, Beakman and Eisele said.
"Someone could be killed or badly injured," Beakman, a 14-year veteran with the Lockport Police Department, said.
In an attempt to eliminate such danger and protect railroad property and employees, Beakman said, "The railroad has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for trespassing. We want people to know that if you're on railroad property, you are going to be arrested."
The policy is a necessary one, he said.
"We needed a law enforcement presence on the railroad to keep people from trespassing especially along our railroad's right of way," Eisele said. "We needed someone to take care of vandals and to prevent people from being hurt.
"People have a total lack of common sense in a railroad environment," Beakman said. "We have idiots who run in front of trains to see if they can beat them. Some play chicken and stand on the tracks to see if the train will stop. The train can't stop and they have to jump out of the way. Fortunately, nobody's been hit yet," Beakman said.
In the Lockport and Albion areas, he said, "Kids use the tracks as a short cut to school and even go over and under cars and in front of engines."
Some people, especially kids and even college students, throw rocks at passing trains, risking the chance of injuring railroad employees like the engineer who might be sticking his head out of a window to see what's ahead, Beakman said.
During one 19-hour stretch recently, Beakman arrested three people for trespassing in separate incidents while he was making periodic checks on railroad property. Two were charged while crossing the railroad trestle that spans the State Barge Canal near Gooding and Market streets. A third was arrested while he was walking along the railroad tracks in that same area.
A conviction for trespassing can carry up to a $250 fine or a 15-day jail sentence, Beakman said.
The railroad company also is concerned with other forms of foolishness that Beakman hopes to help correct.
"You wouldn't believe how many grade-crossing violations I've seen," Beakman said. "I thought they were kidding when they told me this was a problem. But I saw it happen five or six times" on one trip along the Falls Road line. Recently, he said there have been grade-crossing accidents in Gasport and Albion that were the fault of motorists.
"Fortunately, nobody was injured," Beakman said.
The other practical aspect of this is that railroad property won't be destroyed and railroad employees won't get hurt by rock-throwers and people placing debris on tracks if trespassing is reduced or eliminated, Beakman said. He said vandals do everything from spray-painting and trying to break into railroad cars to damaging crossing gates and switches.
Beakman said he also is involved in educating the public about railroad safety through the company's "Operation Lifesaver" program where he speaks to various groups about railroad safety and the dangers of trespassing on railroad property.
So far railroad company officials seem pleased with their one-man police force.
By hiring Beakman, Eisele said, "Now we have a qualified man who has the wherewithal and the authority to do that (stop vandalism and trespassing) and deal with it immediately. It's one guy. But he's out there. He can make arrests and prosecute. He has all the power of a law enforcement officer."
There are nine different police agencies that have jurisdiction along Falls Road Railroad property. One of Beakman's main jobs is to work with other police agencies "and encourage them to make arrests" to help cut down on problems at his company's tracks and rail yards.
As to whether the Genesee Valley Transportation Co. will hire more police officers to make Beakman more than a force of one, Eisele said, "That depends on the future."
Beakman said he is thrilled right down to his official railroad uniform, hat, patch and badge to be part of such a historic tradition.
"The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad commissioned the first railroad policemen in 1847. The Pinkertons came into play eight years later. A lot of times they were the only law enforcement officers in the west (before it was settled). It was railroad detectives that chased famous outlaws like Jessie James," Beakman said.
Because there were few or no banks out west in the early years of the westward movement and payrolls and money had to be transported by train, "Railroad police came up with the first SWAT team to stop train robberies. They'd have six armed officers hiding inside a railroad car on horseback to catch train robbers" when holdups occurred, Beakman said.
"During World War I, it was railroad police who protected every bridge and railroad yard in the country," he said.
He said he believes the Genesee Valley Transportation Co. is the first short-line railroad company in New York to start up a police force.