Northampton, railroad officials raise safety awareness ahead of stepped-up train service

  • Lou Frangella, who is a grade crossing specialist for the Federal Railroad Administration, hands out flyers on railroad safety to motorists near a railroad crossing on Damon Road in Northampton, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. The event was held to raise safety awareness and bring attention to the blue and white Emergency Notification System signs at crossings. The signs display the railroad's emergency contact number for reporting safety problems and emergency situations. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Traffic moves past an Emergency Notification System sign at a railroad crossing at Damon Road in Northampton, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Snape, left, of the Northampton Fire Department, and Lou Frangella, who is a grade crossing specialist for the Federal Railroad Administration, hand out flyers on railroad safety to motorists near a railroad crossing on Damon Road in Northampton, Thursday. The event was held to raise safety awareness and bring attention to the blue and white Emergency Notification System signs at crossings. The signs display the railroad’s emergency contact number for reporting safety problems and emergency situations. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2019 10:25:38 PM
Modified: 8/22/2019 10:25:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As a passenger train neared Damon Road on Thursday afternoon, red lights began to flash, a warning alarm sounded, and two gates descended to block off the train tracks as an air whistle blared in the distance. Moments later, an Amtrak train barreled across the road.

As intended, cars had safely stopped before or after the tracks by the time the warning system went off. But if a car or pedestrian stops on the train tracks, the consequences can be deadly; in the past week, two pedestrians were struck and killed by an MBTA commuter rail train in the eastern part of the state. And in March, a woman was struck and killed while crossing railroad tracks in Springfield.

From 1:30 to 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, Northampton police and firefighters, working with Amtrak police and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration, held a safety awareness operation at the Damon Road crossing in hopes of preventing these tragedies in the future.

Beginning at the end of the month, Amtrak will implement its Valley Flyer pilot train service between Greenfield and Springfield, increasing the number of north- and southbound trains. Six to eight trains will pass through Northampton each day, said Richard Towle, a railway safety instructor, and this figure may increase based on the pilot service’s popularity.

“It’s a completely different world out here now,” Towle said. “This is no longer a sleepy rail line.”

The Valley Flyer service will add three round-trip trains on weekdays, and two on weekends and holidays. The railroad has mostly hosted freight trains in the past, although Amtrak already runs the Vermonter passenger line on the tracks.

As part of the safety awareness operation, officers, dispatchers, and FRA workers lined the street to hand out informational flyers — setting a goal of about 5,000, according to Towle — detailing railroad crossing safety instructions and what people should do if they find themselves stuck on the tracks.

“If we educate, then we won’t have someone killed like we did in Gloucester,” Towle said, referring to the pedestrian death on Thursday morning.

A person who gets stuck on the train tracks for any reason should call the phone number listed on the blue and white Emergency Notification System sign under the crossing’s warning lights. A dispatcher can then alert any oncoming trains to brake before getting to the crossing, although even this advanced warning is sometimes not enough to stop a train in time.

A standard freight train traveling at 55 mph needs about a mile to fully stop due to the weight it carries. A smaller passenger train requires about half that distance.

Some residents, such as Northampton resident Roger Sorkin, were critical of the operation’s method.

“The way they chose to disseminate this was to snarl traffic so that every car that passes has to stop, roll down their window, and get a flyer,” Sorkin said.

Sorkin was on his way to Hadley to pick up his children from summer camp when he noticed the large police presence on Damon Road, he said, and assumed it was in response to a serious criminal incident. Sorkin was frustrated to find out that the police presence was dedicated to handing out flyers, he said, noting that his trip took 20 minutes longer than anticipated due to the traffic on Damon Road.

“It seemed like someone was just really thoughtless in their decision making,” Sorkin said. “That has repercussions on people who rely on the city to run smoothly, without these unexpected inconveniences.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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