Commuter Rail Safety – Educating the Public

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Title: Commuter Rail Safety - Educating the Public

Phase(s): Construction

Category: Scope

Date: September 30, 1997

1. Background

On September 29, 1997, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) reinstituted commuter rail passenger service on the Old Colony Line. Since 1959 this line has been abandoned as a commuter passenger rail line. For a period of approximately 38 years, residents of the South Shore area have gradually become accustomed to driving across highway-rail grade crossings and accessing the right-of-way without concern for high speed passenger train traffic. Trains along this newly rehabilitated line are capable of traveling at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.

The Old Colony Line is comprised of nearly 64 miles of rail, with the majority of this being single trackway. The line is divided into three distinct sections, which are designated as the Main Line, Plymouth Line and Middleborough Line. Also within the system are 15 elevated platform stations and 45 at grade road crossings. Of the 45 grade crossings, 28 are located along the Plymouth Line and 17 are on the Middleborough Line.

The MBTA recognized early in the design process that keeping the public informed during the construction phase of the project, and the revenue service phase would require a comprehensive safety awareness program. The MBTA created the "Office of Old Colony Communications” with the responsibility to reach out to the cities and towns affected by the new rail passenger service. The MBTA began educating the public utilizing the "Operation Lifesaver" program more than two years prior to the scheduled revenue operation date.

"Operation Lifesaver" is a national non-profit organization with chapters located in 49 of the 50 states. This program makes available to any transit property preprinted railroad safety related information and specially trained personnel that can be used to train other individuals to educate various groups and community organizations. The primary focus of the program is to elevate the importance of public awareness regarding the potential hazards at rail-highway grade crossings, and the dangers of trespassing on railroad right-of-way.

During the design and early construction phases, the MBTA was researching how they were to educate the public on railroad safety. The MBTA had to evaluate and determine if they would design their own public education program or utilize an industry standard (prepared and tested) railroad safety awareness program. The choice was to utilize "Operation Lifesaver", but modify it to meet the MBTA's specific objectives regarding high speed commuter rail service.

More than two years before the start of revenue service, the MBTA kicked off its railroad safety education program. The emphasis on railroad safety has been a two fold approach. First, the MBTA's effort was to train and educate individuals who can share this knowledge regarding rail safety with other groups such as students and community organizations. This group consisted of police officers, fire fighters, school officials, and agency staff. The second step was direct public contact through making presentations, mass mailings, preparing and issuing press releases and conducting special safety fairs to share and distribute the educational materials regarding rail safety. In both functions the MBTA has relied upon the readily available "Operation Lifesaver" information to share with the public and use as a basis for their enhanced program.

Individual training was the first step taken by the MBTA to establish a solid foundation for program implementation. Given the magnitude and importance of this effort the MBTA did not want to solely rely on its own resources and personnel to effectively reach out to all the communities along the Old Colony Line. To ensure overall success it was critical that the MBTA form an alliance with the local cities, towns and community organizations. This was accomplished through the "Operation Lifesaver " training classes which were presented to police/fire personnel, school/bus officials, and MBTA/State/AMTRAK personnel. The MBTA has conducted ten (10) "Operation Lifesaver" classes resulting in the training of 80 individuals representing every city and town along the Middleborough and Plymouth Lines. Through these trained individuals over 200 community schools were contacted and over 46,000 students received presentations, handout materials and safety tips. In addition, the Boy Scouts went door to door in one town distributing 4000 railroad safety brochures, while the 4H Club in another community arranged for 50 local businesses to display construction safety posters.

Special program enhancement features developed and implemented by the MBTA have also contributed to the success of this program. Twenty school bus companies were contacted and given literature to distribute to drivers. Nearly 300 school bus drivers received safety presentations and the MBTA held a special training class at a highway-rail grade crossing utilizing a test train, school bus and police officers equipped with radar guns. The MBTA contacted 33 local driver education schools and assisted in incorporating a "Railroad Safety" course for classroom instruction and behind the wheel training. Ten safety related programs were produced and were aired via local cable TV stations during construction and pre-operational testing, and four months prior to the start of revenue service. In addition, other videos provided by "Operation Lifesaver" and those developed and prepared by the MBTA were aired on local cable TV.

The Old Colony Communications Office has also been instrumental in the distribution and display of approximately 6000 project posters, 3000 construction safety posters and 5000 operation railroad safety posters. Project brochures, newsletters, and safety literature were also mailed out periodically throughout the duration of the project (approximately 250,000 pieces of mail). This office served as the focal contact point for the general public. Any question regarding either the construction activities or testing or start of revenue service such as time schedules and fare structure were responded to by this office. The office assisted in the preparation of weekly press releases to newspapers and town officials concerning the operation schedule for test trains. These test trains became the public's first awareness of the future passenger service and the associated potential danger at a highway-rail grade crossing and trespassing on the railroad right-of-way.

One of the MBTA's specialized programs included nearly 600 fire fighters and emergency response personnel to be trained in Emergency Evacuation Procedures. This exercise also included both local and State Public Safety representatives and hospitals from the various surrounding communities. The MBTA provided commuter rail equipment and a hands-on training session to conduct a staged mock crash involving a train and school bus with 15 victims. Approximately 3 hours of video taping of the mock crash was professionally edited to a 16 minute tape entitled "Abington Emergency Response Exercise 6/01/97". Multiple copies of this video were then made available by the MBTA and sent to all of the fire and police chiefs in each of the communities located along the Old Colony Line. As a follow up, the MBTA has also coordinated simulated emergency response drills in other communities.

2. The Lesson

The MBTA recognized their obligation to communities and made an early commitment and effort to conduct a massive public awareness campaign regarding railroad safety. Railroad safety should be incorporated into the project development design and construction phases. Such efforts are tested during the pre-revenue service time frame and reinforced at the start of revenue service.

During construction at grade highway-rail crossings and individual trespassing within the right-of-way were critical issues the MBTA had to address prior to reinstitution of passenger service. On its own, the MBTA had neither the full complement of resources or personnel to conduct a comprehensive railroad safety training program. However, working in conjunction with the State "Operation Lifesaver" coordinator and other local railroad, public safety and education officials, the MBTA was able to assemble and execute a successful and well received Railroad Safety Education Program. Key elements developed included safety training videos prepared by "Operation Lifesaver", the MBTA, emergency response training involving all levels of State and local representatives, and the preparation and distribution of rail road safety literature.

The MBTA recognizes that railroad safety education of the public is not a one time process but a continual program that must be periodically maintained. Furthermore, as school students advance and staff personnel changes occur with fire/police departments, school administration and bus drivers it will be necessary to provide periodic maintenance of the safety education program.

3. Applicability

The approach used by the MBTA may be readily applied by any transit agency that has to address the right-of-way trespassing issue and accommodate at grade highway-rail crossings associated with providing high speed passenger rail service.

4. References

  • MBTA -Videos "Abington Emergency Response Exercise", “MBTA Railroad Safety
  • " MBTA-Safety Posters: Construction Phase - "Play It Safe"
  • Operational Phase - "Play It Safe Always Expect a Train"
  • MBTA-Printed and Produced: Press Releases
  • Project Brochures
  • Newsletters
  • Posters
  • "Operation Lifesaver"- preprinted educational materials, slides, and videos
  • Chicago Transit Authority - Video "Be Smart Be Safe"

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