Quick. Do the names Greg Plitts, Sarah Jones and Kathy Carlisle ring a bell with you? Greg Plitts might. He was a well known fitness instructor who made popular videos posted on YouTube as well as a former model and aspiring actor. But that’s not how I know his name. What about Jeff Ray? He was a guitarist and actor in a Las Vegas run of the popular Broadway show “Jersey Boys.” Chances are you have not heard of him either.
What these four folks, as well as others like them, have in common are that they died in ways that garnered a lot of national media exposure. They were hit and killed by trains while taking photographs or having photographs taken of them. Now it might seem a little stupefying to think that someone could be hit by a train. Afterall, trains are easy to avoid, but it happens more than you might expect.
Here are a few examples –
Greg Plitt: The 37 year old fitness guru was killed in June, 2015 while he and a film crew were shooting on tracks in Burbank, California. Witnesses say the engineer of the train was laying on the horn before impact. None of the crew were injured.
Jeffrey Ray: The 43 year old was struck and killed by an Amtrak train near Seattle. While posing for photos on the train tracks. He was a guitarist and cast member of the Off-Broadway show “Jersey Boys.” His girlfriend who was taking the photographs was unhurt
Sarah Jones: The young South Carolina native was a crew member for the biopic “Midnight Rider” who were filming scenes on a railroad bridge in Georgia. She was killed and others were injured when a train came and they could not get off the bridge in enough time. The director was found negligent in her death because the railroad company, CSX, had denied permits for the filming and told them not to be there.
Kathy Carlisle: The 52 year old high school photography teacher was struck in Sacramento, California. She was shooting an oncoming train and did not see the train coming from behind her on the tracks she was standing on.
Johnathan Eade was killed by an Amtrak train on a bridge in Missouri. Officials speculate he did not hear the approaching train due to traffic noise on the road below.
Fenjin He and Zuojun Lin: The Chinese-American photographers were killed when they got too close to the Norfolk Southern train they were shooting in Pennsylvania.
Then there was the high school girl’s volleyball team in Nebraska who chose one of the busiest rail lines around for their team photo. Luckily, this photo shoot did not end in tragedy. An employee with Union Pacific saw what was going on and called it in. Trains were stopped and officials were dispatched to the scene. Helping arrange the shoot with the coach of the team was the owner and editor of the local newspaper. Apparently this was not the first time they had done tis. The tracks in that area see fifty trains a day according to Union Pacific.
The interesting thing I found while doing admittedly non-scientific research was that more photographers are killed on railroad tracks than people posing on them. I say this because there is a big push on Facebook and other social media to get folks to stop doing portrait sessions on railroad tracks. And that’s a good campaign. But most of what I found on Google indicates that photographers there shooting trains are just as likely to be killed as are models in portrait sessions. Sometimes we as railfans think we know when trains will run or assume that we’ll hear them coming, but time and time, people with cameras in their hands prove these notions wrong.
According to Operation Lifesaver, a non profit organization dedicated to safety around railroads, there were 915 trespassing causalities in 2014. Of these, 501 were fatal. At some level, these numbers seem low. But then I looked up the total number of deaths from airline accidents and found that 451 people died in planes crashes. So more people get hit and killed by trains than die in plane crashes. (Source: NTSB)
Interestingly, National Safety Council (NSC) data indicates that train passenger deaths are extremely rare, even more than airline deaths. But you hear about them on the national news every time they happen and they stay etched in your mind for months after. Additionally, shark attack deaths are almost non-existent. There were three reported deaths worldwide in 2014. But the media plays up every time a shark attacks a tourist, which most times are not fatal at all.
But going back to trespassing deaths on the rails, I have to ask myself why. As said, trains are easy to avoid. Just stay off railroad tracks. But then railroad tracks are often a shortcut for folks on foot. They seem safe because you might see a train every few days or weeks depending on when you go out. Forgetting for a minute that all railroad tracks are private property and that just by being on them you are trespassing, there are also a few things about railroad tracks that need to be addressed –
It can be hard to tell what tracks are used and what tracks are abandoned just by looking at them. Rust can develop within hours or days on tracks that see regular use while some smaller railroad companies may have lax maintenance of way policy allowing tracks to get overgrown with weeds in some cases.
Against popular belief, trains are not always loud. When folks say this, I want to yell at them that people are getting hit by trains every day, so they must not all be that loud. In the above case of John Eade, investigators think the sound of the highway traffic near by drowned out the approaching train. But also remember that passenger trains such as Amtrak are by their very nature sleeker, faster and not as loud as freight trains.
Trains also don’t run on schedules. Just because you see a train passing at a certain time one day doesn't mean it will pass at the same time the next. Even passenger trains can be late. A train can come at any time, day or night, or any track.l
Even tracks that have not seen trains in many years can start seeing trains again. The Carolina Southern Railroad has not run in four years, but a new company has bought the track and expects to run trains again by the end of the year. Even when the Carolina Southern ran, you wouldn't have been able to tell by the condition of their track. In North Carolina, one section of rail was not used since the 70s or 80s but then opened back up for rail traffic within the last five years and sees regular trains now. These are just two examples near where I live. There are many other cases throughout America where rails have been used again after long being dormant.
When I worked in the media, I had to cover several railroad accidents. I remember one on the CSX in Lancaster when I worked for CN2 News. A man had been walking the tracks at night and was hit by a long freight train on the Atlanta to Hamlet, NC main line. My reporter and I covered it the next day and got there just as officials were wrapping up the scene. One showed us the point of impact and we saw there were still little bits of the man left behind. It was a sobering reminder of what can happen when a train hits a person.
So, really, I don’t need to trot out all these nifty statistics and worst case scenarios. All you have to do is use common sense. Don’t be on railroad tracks, ever.