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Officials ride train to learn railroad dangers

Staff Photo: John Bohn Law enforcement officials, emergency responders and other local, state and federal dignitaries boarded a special "Operation Lifesaver" Safety Train ride from Duluth to Taccoa Wednesday. The trip is designed to show community leaders and first responders what train crews see every day when motorists ignore signs and signals at highway-rail intersections.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Law enforcement officials, emergency responders and other local, state and federal dignitaries boarded a special "Operation Lifesaver" Safety Train ride from Duluth to Taccoa Wednesday. The trip is designed to show community leaders and first responders what train crews see every day when motorists ignore signs and signals at highway-rail intersections.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Law enforcement officials, emergency responders and other local, state and federal dignitaries boarded a special "Operation Lifesaver" Safety Train ride from Duluth to Taccoa Wednesday. The trip is designed to show community leaders and first responders what train crews see every day when motorists ignore signs and signals at highway-rail intersections. The train passes a railroad crossing at the entrance to the Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Paul Ward, of the National Safety Copuncil, photographs a train while joining law enforcement officials, emergency responders and other local, state and federal dignitaries aboard a special "Operation Lifesaver" Safety Train ride from Duluth to Taccoa Wednesday. The trip is designed to show community leaders and first responders what train crews see every day when motorists ignore signs and signals at highway-rail intersections.

DULUTH -- It's surprising the risks drivers take when there's a freight train speeding toward them.

"The lights start flashing, the gates are coming down and for whatever reason people go around the gates and try to beat the train," said William Miller, manager of grade crossing safety for Norfolk Southern Corp., a major railroad system based in Virginia. "Happens all the time."

Miller and hundreds more converged on Duluth Wednesday to board the Operation Lifesaver Safety Train from Duluth to Toccoa, a trip designed to show community leaders and first responders the deadly gambles that conductors see everyday when motorists ignore signs and signals at highway-rail intersections.

"Not everyone gets hit by the train, but a lot of people take chances," Miller said. "Every day in this country people risk their lives to save, on average, about two-and-a-half minutes."

A video camera mounted on Wednesday's Toccoa-bound train with monitors in the passenger cars piped live footage to those who took the ride. Passengers included about 28 different law enforcement agencies.

They included Maj. Jeff Strickland with Gwinnett County Police and Norcross Police Chief Warren Summers.

"There are incidents in our area pretty regular," Summers said. "It happens often enough to be a problem."

Officials with Operation Lifesaver invited public safety officials like Summers and Strickland in order to help spread the word to citizens about the dangers of railroad crossing areas.

A nationwide non-profit educational program, Operation Lifesaver aims to save lives and prevent injuries through offering programs presented to schools, civic groups and businesses along with specialized programs for law enforcement, emergency responders, school bus drivers and professional truck drivers.

According to a statement from the organization, Georgia historically ranks in the top 10 states in the nation with the highest number of motor vehicle-train collisions. The state has nearly 8,000 highway/railroad crossings and a large volume of both train and motor vehicle traffic.

Statistics also show that railroad trespassing incidents are on the rise at the national and state level.

Operation Lifesaver's State Coordinator Jennie Glasgow said that railroad tracks and rights-of-way are the private property of the railroads, "and anyone walking on tracks or entering railroad yards is guilty of trespassing."

Glasgow said that people should be aware of laws, dangers and statistics.

"Crossing collisions are the most preventable of all motor vehicle crashes, since the law clearly requires the motorist to yield to an oncoming train," Glasgow said.

Miller concurred.

"We have to educate the public on this," he said. "Too often, people do not heed these warnings and bad stuff happens."

For more information, visit www.oli.org or e-mail gaol@mindspring.com.