By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications
As they rolled down the tracks Thursday afternoon from Rockmart to Dalton, area government officials had a chance to see Northwest Georgia in a different light and, in the process, learn some valuable lessons about railroad crossing safety.
The trip was part of a statewide three-day operation called the Peach State Whistle Stop Safety Tour, coordinated June 3-5 by Norfolk Southern and Operation Lifesaver, the railroad safety organization.
Officials from across Northwest Georgia climbed aboard the safety train in Rockmart Thursday afternoon, then headed north to Dalton in a restored antique passenger car that featured TV monitors beaming back video from a camera mounted on the front of the train to offer an engineer’s view of what was happening in front of the train.
Local officials taking the trip included Whitfield County Commission Chairman Mike Babb, Sheriff Scott Chitwood, Public Works Director DeWayne Hunt and County Engineer Kent Benson; Dalton Mayor Pro Tem George Sadosuk, Councilwoman Denise Wood, Police Chief Jason Parker, Fire Chief Bruce Satterfield, Cohutta Mayor Ron Shinnick and Cohutta City Clerk Donna Henderson.
Fortunately, the passengers didn’t see any accidents during their two-hour journey, nor did they see any drivers taking chances that could have been deadly, Babb said.
Other such safety education trips have not been so lucky, though.
“We didn’t see any cars running in front of us,” Babb said, “but they did show us a special tape from two years ago where this particular train was carrying people just like us in North Carolina when a truck pulling a flatbed trailer ran the crossing right in front of them and they hit it.”
The crash didn’t derail the train, but participants had to proceed on buses instead of the train and the driver of the truck had to be airlifted to the hospital but survived.
“It was interesting to see just what can happen,” Babb said.
Train safety is of special interest to local officials right now because the county is in the process of working with the railroad on making improvements to crossings in the Carbondale area.
“We were able to get a look at the crossings down there from the standpoint of the engineer on the train,” Babb said. “We also got to see some similar work that Gordon County is already doing on their Midway crossing that they’re moving.”
Railroad officials are particularly interested in making the public aware of just how dangerous crossings can be if proper safety precautions aren’t taken by the public.
The statistics are overwhelming.
According to Jennie Glasgow, state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver in Georgia, in Georgia in 2013, there were 13 deaths from highway-rail crossing incidents, fourth highest in the nation, and another 63 injuries, a 58 percent increase over the previous year.
“Every three hours across the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train,” Glasgow said. “On foot or in a vehicle, the result is the same — severe injury or even death.”
That’s why Norfolk Southern hosted the three-day safety tour, which stopped in nine Georgia cities as part of a three-day, 327-mile trip to raise awareness about being safe and alert around railroad tracks and grade crossings. Other legs on the tour included trips from Valdosta to Tifton to Warner Robins on Tuesday and from Macon to Barnesville to Jonesboro on Wednesday.
In 2013, nationwide 1,193 people were seriously injured or died at highway-rail grade crossings, and 908 others were hurt or killed while trespassing on railroad tracks.
Norfolk Southern and the nation’s other railroads have joined with Operation Lifesaver to support a new nationwide public education campaign called “See Tracks? Think Train!,” which aims to reduce these incidents by highlighting behaviors that put people at risk, such as trying to beat a train at a grade crossing and illegally walking on railroad tracks.
Saving a life, Norfolk Southern says, could be as simple as cautioning friends with this easy-to-remember message: See Tracks? Think Train!
Participants Thursday could also visit the NS Exhibit Car, a restored 1926 Pullman passenger car used to educate and entertain audiences of all ages with a nod to the company’s heritage while showcasing the benefits of rail freight transportation. That car includes a locomotive simulator complete with throttle, brake and horn that puts guests in control of a virtual freight train.