Crossing the line

While drivers crossed the railroad tracks in Fort Dodge Friday evening, they may not have thought much about the Union Pacific train that periodically stopped traffic.

But on board the train were a group of law enforcement officers and Union Pacific officials working to prevent drivers from crossing the railroad tracks while a train is approaching.

The operation is known as the Union Pacific Crossing Accident Reduction Enforcement Safety.

Don Heddinger, Union Pacific railroad crossing safety coordinator, said CARES exercises are held about two or three times every year.

“The law says that drivers have to come to a complete stop between 15 and 50 feet before the tracks,” he said. “If they roll across the tracks, or don’t stop at all, they’ll get a ticket.”

If vehicles do come to a complete stop, they can legally cross the tracks before the train passes the crossing.

“If there are two or three cars that are stacked up, and the car in the lead crosses, the rest can’t follow them,” Heddinger said.

To make sure these laws are being followed, Heddinger said Union Pacific teams up with local law enforcement to conduct CARES.

“We make sure that people are compliant with the law,” he said.

Officers from the Fort Dodge Police Department, Webster County Sheriff’s Department, Iowa State Patrol and Union Pacific Police monitored grade crossings Friday as a train went back and forth down the line that goes through Fort Dodge.

Onboard the train, Fort Dodge Police Capt. Robert Thode monitored drivers’ reactions as the train approached, while Reserve Officer Mark Gargano used a videocamera to record every crossing.

At one point, a trooper from the Iowa State Patrol sped off after a driver apparently went around the gates on Fifth Avenue South. Another time, a Fort Dodge police officer pulled over a driver near the grade crossing at North 27th Street.

Heddinger said the purpose of these enforcement exercises is safety and education.

“If the police are issuing tickets, then there’s still work that needs to be done,” he said. “In a perfect world, they would issue zero tickets, because then you know everybody’s paying attention.”

According to Heddinger, every three hours there is a collision between a train and a vehicle. He stressed that’s why it’s important to pay attention to one’s surroundings.

“A train running into a vehicle is the equivalent of your car running over a pop can,” he said. “We do not want that to happen.”

Trains also can’t be stopped as easily as cars, which means if a driver ignores the lights and gates of a crossing, it’s not a guarantee they won’t get hit.

“The average train takes a mile or more to stop when it’s going 55 miles per hour,” he said. “These don’t stop on a dime.”