In light of the deaths of three children struck by trains this week (see article below) , We felt it was important to run this spotlight article on rail safety from our Safe Routes Scoop archives.

 Always Expect a Train

There are over 1,000 miles of light and commuter rail and 2,463 miles of freight railroad crisscrossing New Jersey[i]. Tracks run throughout our state, in major cities, small towns, industrial areas and remote locations. Many students cross rail tracks, both legally and illegally, each day while walking or bicycling to and from school. At approximately 500 per year nationally, deaths among trespassers on railroad rights-of-way make up the largest number of rail-related fatalities[ii]. Education can help prevent railroad deaths and injuries. Children need to be taught that they should never play on or near railroad tracks.

SafetyYou should never try to cross the tracks if a train is coming. Because of their size, trains might look like they are moving slower than they actually are. By the time a locomotive engineer can see a person on the tracks, it is too late for him or her to stop the train from hitting them. Trains are very large and heavy and cannot stop quickly. A train going 55 mph can take a mile or more to stop – that’s about 20 football fields[i].The only safe place to cross tracks is at a designated public crossing with either a crossbuck, flashing red lights, or a gate. It is important to obey all signs and signals and to listen for a warning bell and train whistles.  Once the lights begin to flash, it can take as little as 20 seconds for a train to travel through a crossing. This is not enough time to make it across. Even after the train has passed, continue to obey all signs and signals and do not cross until gates have lifted and the lights have stopped flashing. It is against New Jersey law to go around gates at a highway-rail grade crossing. This applies to everyone, whether in a car, on a bicycle or on foot[ii].

Bike Safety

Crossing rail tracks on a bike can often be tricky, especially if the tracks cross the road at an angle. To cross safely, younger students should dismount and walk his or her bike across tracks. Older teens and adults may stay on their bikes but should check behind to see if it’s clear, and steer across the tracks slowly and at a right angle. This will help keep from getting a front wheel caught in the tracks.  Bicyclists of all ages should be extra careful when rails are wet. Wet rails can be just as slick as ice to a bicycle tire.


Legally, people can cross railroad crossing at public crossings such as roads, sidewalks, and trails. Trespassing deaths occur when a person crosses over a non-public railroad crossing and is struck by a train. People use railroad property to ride all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, to walk and bike, and to fish from bridges. People also take shortcuts across railroad tracks or property. Often these shortcuts are taken by students on their way to and from school. However, all railroad tracks, trestles, yards and equipment are private property and trespassers are subject to arrests and fines. In New Jersey, it is against the law to be on railroad tracks[iii]. People convicted of the offense of trespassing on railroad property are subject to a fine of not less than $100 and/or imprisonment[iv].

Operation Lifesaver

Operation Lifesaver is a non-profit, international, public education program first established in 1972 to end collisions, deaths, and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad rights-of-way. The organization has developed classroom lessons on safety around highway-rail grade crossings and railroad tracks. There are lesson plans available for early childhood through 12th grade. Educational brochures and videos, coloring books for children and other materials can also be found on the Operation Lifesaver Web site:

Every state has an Operation Lifesaver coordinator who can provide information about highway-rail grade crossing safety and trespass prevention activities, including scheduling a free safety presentation at your school, community club or workplace, or at fairs and special events. Operation Lifesaver also has trained and certified volunteer speakers who provide free safety presentations for various professions and for all age groups in order to increase public safety around railroad tracks.

New Jersey has 25 volunteer presenters that cover the entire state. According to Todd Hirt, the New Jersey State Coordinator, “Volunteer presenters gave 465 presentations to about 70,000 people in 2008.” The majority of presentations are given to students in grades K through 8. However, volunteers also present to any interested civic group and at community events. Presentations are usually 15 minutes followed by a video. Both the presentation and video are age appropriate. No matter whom the audience, Mr. Hirt says there are two things they always tell people, “the railroad is private property and always expect a train.”

If you are interested in arranging a presentation, please visit Operation Lifesaver’s Web site at

[i]  “Railroad Safety.” Safe Kids USA 21.Dec.2009

[ii] Motor Vehicle and Traffic Laws of New Jersey, title 39:4-127.1

[iii] Criminal Justice Code of New Jersey, Title 2C: 18-3

[iv]“Rail Safety.” New Jersey Transit. 21.Dec.2009

[i] Bureau of Transportation Statistics Table 1-9: Characteristics of Rail Transit by Transit Authority: 2007

[ii] Operation Lifesaver. 21.Dec.2009