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First responders board train to learn about rail risks

First responders from Erie and Chautauqua counties were given a new perspective on the risks and dangers of trains at an Operation Lifesaver’s program Monday on board a Norfolk Southern freight train.

Representatives from area police and fire departments boarded the restored railroad cars in Buffalo and rode to Ashtabula, Ohio. On board, a live video camera was streaming a view from the front of the locomotive. The emergency responders got to see firsthand the areas in their territories.

Evan Eisenhandler, executive director of Operation Lifesaver, along with representatives from Norfolk Southern, provided information on the safety features of trains and the trouble spots along the tracks.

Operation Lifesaver is an educational group that promotes education about railway areas and trains. First responders throughout the state were encouraged to sign up for free trainings for their departments. Eisenhandler said trainers from the group will provide free training for up to 75 people.

The group speaks to more than 250,000 people a year throughout the United States. In New York, they set up displays at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg and the New York State Fair. One component of the display is a locomotive simulator, which also was made available to the group on Monday’s tour. Technical information, including where fuel and batteries are stored as well as other statistics about the trains, was also provided.

Eisenhandler said the biggest problem for the railroads is trespassing. Derrick Pidgeon, a public relations representative from Norfolk Southern, agreed. They said people who trespass on railroad property often believe it is a public area, but the railroad tracks and yards are privately owned.

They said vandals who trespass and spray paint on rail road cars also present problems. He said they have painted over the reflective paint on the cars, which makes the cars harder to see at night, and over identification numbers on the cars. The numbers are used to identify contents.

In Chautauqua County in 2011, four deaths were attributed to people who trespassed onto the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. While some deaths are attributed to suicide, others are accidents.

The group also stressed the importance of motorists obeying train-crossing gate signals and warning lights.

The whistles on a train are meant as a warning to motorists, the railroad officials said. The blasts start at least 20 seconds before a train reaches a crossing. Trains can be traveling at speeds up to 110 miles an hour, and hearing the whistle is not an indication that there is enough time to pass.

The daylong safety program for first responders was designed to encourage further education about the dangers of railroad tracks. The train ride was the first part of a weeklong journey to Indianapolis.