Man vs. train: Winner is never in doubt

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The TV ad begins with a pair of tuxedo-clad announcers describing what sounds like a prize fight.

"We are looking at a pretty lopsided matchup, Jim," says one.

"Ron, this newcomer has no idea what he's getting himself into."

"Jim, the size difference alone is staggering."

The camera shifts to a young man walking on railroad tracks, listening to music on a headset. A train horn is heard in the distance and as the train approaches, the camera cuts away an instant before impact. "It's no contest" appears on a black screen.

The ad is part of a public service campaign begun this month by Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization devoted to rail safety. The campaign's slogan is "See Tracks? Think Train."

The campaign has added relevance here after three fatal incidents involving freight trains and people on the tracks in the past week.

In the latest, 48-year-old John Relja of Elizabeth Township was struck and killed on Thursday while riding a dirt bike on CSX tracks along West Carson Street in Pittsburgh's Esplen section.

PG graphic: Train Fatalities
(Click image for larger version)

The westbound train struck him shortly after 9:30 p.m., throwing him and the bike from a ledge to the ground about 30 feet below. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

"He most probably did not hear the train as it was approaching and sounding its whistle," city public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.

Mr. Relja may have been riding on the tracks because of construction that has closed westbound West Carson Street.

CSX issued a statement Friday saying it was cooperating with investigators and expressing sympathy to Mr. Relja's family and friends.

The train, with two locomotives and 31 cars, was going from Portsmouth, Va., to North Baltimore, Ohio.

"When incidents like this occur, CSX offers its train crews the opportunity to be replaced by other crew members, and also makes counseling available. CSX follows all federal regulations and company policies as they relate to testing, and no testing was required in this incident," the statement said.

Railroad and federal safety officials say it's never acceptable or smart for people to trespass on tracks. A freight train moving at 50 mph can take more than a mile to stop, even with maximum braking.

On average, according to Operation Lifesaver, a person or vehicle is struck by a train every three hours in the United States. Preliminary federal data showed a 7.7 percent increase last year in deaths and injuries among people walking on or near tracks and a 1.5 percent increase in casualties at railroad crossings.

Rail safety has improved dramatically in almost every aspect in the last two years "with the noted exceptions of highway-rail grade crossings and trespassing incidents," said Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, in announcing the public service campaign. "It is more important than ever that we educate the public about the dangers of risky behavior around trains."

Pennsylvania was tied for sixth in the U.S. in the number of rail fatalities involving trespassing last year, with 19. There were 31 such deaths in 2012 and 21 in 2011.

On Tuesday, Tyler L. Quakenbush, 21, of Latrobe was struck and killed by a westbound Norfolk Southern train shortly after 12:15 a.m. Westmoreland County authorities said the train crew applied the emergency brakes after spotting him on the tracks.

Last Saturday, Sandor Macz, 39, was hit and killed by a CSX train in Washington Township, Fayette County. Coroner Phillip Reilly said Macz was lying on the tracks at 3:11 a.m. in heavy fog. The train crew saw him try to sit up just before the accident.

In an incident that did not involve trespassing, a volunteer firefighter from Youngwood, Edwin Wentzel, 57, died after being hit by a Norfolk Southern train on March 22 in North Versailles while helping to search for a missing woman. The Allegheny County medical examiner's office ruled the death accidental.

The woman, Ruth Ann Mullennix, 55, of Wilmerding, was found dead April 10 in the Monongahela River near Turtle Creek.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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