Iowa's Latest Fatal Train Crash Sharpens Safety Focus

Oct 5, 2016

It’s hard to ignore a blaring train whistle, flashing lights and bells.

But people do it all the time, both in cars and on foot.  Last year, two people in Iowa died in train accidents and another ten were injured.  Last weekend in Linn County, Iowa's second fatal accident this year between a train and a vehicle occurred near Alburnett.  That incident has sharpened the focus of a statewide rail safety campaign.

Steve Fratzke is an engineer for CRANDIC, the railway that runs between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.  He says near collisions are common.

“Almost every day I go to work and I get one of those moments when I go (gasp) that was close," he says.

The CRANDIC operates slowly, only about 10 miles an hour, and makes several stops at businesses and factories along the way. The frequent delays sometimes prompt risky behavior. 

“No one plans to trip and fall and no one plans to have their car stall on the tracks," says Wade Swindle, the safety manager for CRANDIC's parent company, Alliant Energy Transportation, "No one plans to run into the car in front of them because they’re racing across the tracks, but all of those things really present dangers to motorists and pedestrians."

One of those pedestrians is Mike Tertinger who works in downtown Cedar Rapids.

“In the two months that I’ve been here, I’ve already seen people running in front of the train and when they’re driving the cut in front of the train. I try not to do that,” he says.

Tertinger’s  co-worker Carolyn Siebrechct says with what she’s witnessed, she’s surprised  there aren’t more accidents.

“Sometimes they’ll shortcut through the alley or try and race to beat the train, things like that,” she says.

Engineer Steve Fratzke says he believes most people don’t realize that even at a slow rate of speed, it takes a long time to stop a very heavy locomotive. 

“When it comes to racing the train, you might win, you might not, but even if you win, you lose," he says.

Fratzke and Wade Swindle are part of a statewide safety campaign known as Operation Lifesaver. Swindle says he winces when sees pictures of high school seniors or newly-engaged couples using the railroad tracks as a backdrop for photographs.

“Even though it might make a great photo op, you’re putting yourself at risk,” says Swindle.  “It’s a work area, you really need to think of it like that."

Not only is walking along the railroad tracks a safety issue.  Engineer Fratzke says it’s also trespassing.

“We’re a little nervous about trespassers, any kind of terrorism could bring commerce to a halt, especially along some of the big lines that run through Cedar Rapids," he explains. “The days of walking along the tracks with your .22 hunting rabbits are gone.” 

Through June of this this year, Iowa has reported 15 train-vehicle collisions on public crossings and two at private crossings.  Fratzke’s record and that of the CRANDIC is even better than that.

“I’ve worked here almost 22 years and I’ve only had one incident when I collided with a car," Fratzke says. “And that car ran into me."

Just as Fratzke was wrapping up the interview onboard the train, there was another one of those “whew, that was close” moments.

“I have my headlights on, the red lights are flashing, the bells are ringing, I’m blowing my horn, and the car runs right over the tracks in front of me without tapping the brakes,” he says.

And even though that driver escaped, Operation Lifesaver tightens enforcement from time to time, when a state trooper rides the rails for a day and hands out tickets.