Amtrak promotes rail safety on eve of expanded train service

  • A rail maintenance vehicle passes by as Amtrak Police Detective Robert Hanson talks to a group of people who were studying plant fossils along the Connecticut River in Holyoke on Friday morning. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amtrak Police Detective Robert Hanson gives a video presentation about rail safety to a drivers education class of 27 youths at the Falls Driving School in South Hadley on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amtrak Police Detective Robert Hanson talks about rail safety near a danger “hot spot,” a foot path between the Dinosaur Footprints reservation on Northampton Street in Holyoke and the Connecticut River. Police have identified about 20 hot spots areas known for trespassing and illegal track crossings along the railway from Springfield to Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • There is a limited sight distance in both directions of this section of Amtrak rail line near the Dinosaur Footprints reservation on Northampton Street (Rt. 5) in Holyoke. The residents of the eleven towns abutting the track are used to seeing mostly slower freight train traffic but, according to Amtrak Police Detective Robert Hanson, the new Valley Flyer pilot train service will bring train speeds of up to 79 mph. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • There is a limited sight distance in both directions of this section of Amtrak rail line near the Dinosaur Footprints reservation on Northampton Street (Rt. 5) in Holyoke. The residents of the eleven towns abutting the track are used to seeing mostly slower freight train traffic but, according to Amtrak Police Detective Robert Hanson, the new Valley Flyer pilot train service will bring train speeds of up to 79 mph. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amtrak Police Detective Robert Hanson talks about rail safety in Holyoke, near one of the danger “hot spots” along the tracks of the Knowledge Corridor between Springfield and Northfield, on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2019 10:34:53 PM
Modified: 8/16/2019 10:34:41 PM

HOLYOKE — As Amtrak prepares to expand passenger rail service with its new Valley Flyer pilot train service between Greenfield and Springfield later this month, the rail company’s police department wants to be unequivocally clear: It is extremely dangerous to illegally cross train tracks.

The two-year pilot service has a tentative start date of Aug. 30, and will provide two round -rip trains on weekdays and one round-trip train on weekends, stopping in Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield. Service will continue to New Haven, Connecticut, where passengers can connect to New York City and beyond through the existing Northeast Corridor service. Trains can reach up to 79 mph along the Pioneer Valley stretch.

“Train tracks are not a place we want people walking,” said Detective Robert Hanson of the Amtrak Police Department.

Amtrak has started running one to two round-trip test trains nightly through Aug. 23 that carry crews and equipment, but these do not stop at each station. When revenue service begins, Amtrak will also still be running these so-called “deadhead” trains at night.

With increased service on the Knowledge Corridor, Hanson said it’s crucial for the public to know proper safety precautions around train tracks.

“The educational part for us is way more important for us than the enforcement part,” Hanson said.

Standing at the Dinosaur Footprints reservation on Route 5 in Holyoke on Friday, one of 20 “hot spots” police have identified as areas known for trespassing and illegal track crossings, Hanson said officers have been increasing patrols and trying to educate people about the law.

He said Amtrak already runs the Vermonter service on these tracks, and while fatalities are rare, they can happen. In March, a woman was struck and killed by an Amtrak train while crossing tracks in Springfield. Hanson is in charge of a wide swath of New England states, and in his nine-year career has seen 62 fatalities, he said.

Most of the current traffic on the railway is freight, which travels at very low speeds, Hanson said. But with expanded service at higher speeds, Amtrak has been improving infrastructure around the tracks.

“They’re in the process now of upgrading all of the rail and all of the grade crossings and clearing brush to accept those speeds from ... a more constant Amtrak service,” he said.

Some people, he said, are not aware of how dangerous it is to trespass on the tracks. While explaining the importance of safety, Hanson eyed a group of people across the tracks studying plant fossils along the Connecticut River. He quickly explained to them that they were trespassing and let them go on their way.

And it’s not just trespassing the police are worried about, Hanson said. Even legal grade crossings on roads can pose a hazard if people don’t follow the rules.

People do sometimes drive around the gates, he said.

“It really poses a danger to not only the train and the train crews, but to them, because they’re focused on what they’re doing and not on the train movement,” he said.

About two weeks ago, Hanson said, a man had parked his car on the side of the tracks near Highway Auto Salvage on Route 5 in Northampton, where an oncoming train took off one of his side-view mirrors.

After the incident, barriers were placed at that location to prevent people from parking too close to the trackse, Hanson said.

Since the railway has mostly carried freight, some areas around the tracks have become popular places for homeless people to live. Police have identified many of those spots to educate them about dangers while trying to help those who need it.

“We’ve done targeted details where we go out with social workers, behavior health and try to give those people any resources we can offer them, to get them moved from that location to somewhere that’s safer,” he said.

Hanson said he’s also been giving presentations in schools across the area, warning students to stay off the train tracks. Earlier in the morning Friday, he spoke to a drivers education class at the Falls Driving School in South Hadley to show up-and-coming drivers potential dangers.

“Most of these incidents are preventable, and if we can educate a large variety of people, we can prevent incidents from occurring,” he said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.




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