Riding along with Railroad Police: a look at anti-trespasser enforcement

It’s illegal to trespass on railroad tracks in Indiana, a little known fact that the Railroad Police hope to share with the public in an “educational blitz.”

Norfolk Southern Corp. is teaming up with the Mishawaka Police Dept. and other police in the area to spread awareness about the dangers and laws surrounding railroad tracks.

In Indiana, it is a class-B misdemeanor to walk across the rail lines anywhere but at a designated railroad crossing—that goes for pedestrian traffic, bicycles and motor vehicles. Officers say that first time offenders are usually informed of the law and let off with a warning. But the Railroad Police has an extensive database to check and see if an individual found crossing the tracks is a repeat offender, and if that’s the case, they are cited or incarcerated.

NewsCenter 16 tagged along with Railroad Police officer Richard Kentaft and Cpt. Robert Reppert of the Mishawaka Police Dept. Tuesday for day-one of the blitz.

Before departure, Gary Hedgepath, Manager of Special Investigations at Norfolk Southern, addressed officers and the media about the importance of railway safety.

“We track the number of trespasser casualties each year. Nationwide in 2012, there were 844 casualties, and that’s of injury or fatalities, 439 of those were fatal,” said Hedgepath, “which means that if you have an encounter with a train, more likely than not, it’s going to be fatal.”

Thus far in Indiana there have been two fatalities, a decrease from 2012. Although it may seem like common sense to stay off the rails when a train is coming, Hedgepath reiterated that sometimes people have a tendency to issue caution. He wants to inform the community that a typical freight train traveling at 60 mph will take over a mile and a half to stop—making emergency stops near impossible.

According to Hedgepath, community outreach programs such as the one run by Norfolk Southern, are designed to reinforce and remind everyone of safety measures to prevent derailments and collisions.

Hedgepath’s plans for day-one involved going out into the community and trying to interact with citizens and businesses. Day-two is set to be the “enforcement” phase, where officers will take a “sterner approach” to patrolling said Hedgepath.

But day-one’s adventure involved patrolling the sides of the railroad tracks, constantly looking out for trespassers illegally crossing the rails and checking for rail ties and debris.

Kentaft has been on the job for 20 years, the last eight he has spent locally. He says in one year he “warned and ejected” some 500 railroad trespassers—and that doesn't include those he arrested.

The two decades Kentaft worked for the police have exposed him to a wide range of stories about life on patrol. He talked about the devastation pedestrian collisions reap on the conductors of the trains themselves, and cited examples of distracted trespassers who failed to look both ways before crossing and were struck and killed.

Cpt. Reppert said patrolling the railroad leads to a variety of encounters, “we've experienced some DUI arrests, trespassing as far as the railroad trespass statute is concerned, maybe some domestics, things of that nature, public intoxication and then every once and a while we will run into a citizen that has an outstanding warrant.”

The officers pointed out that it’s not just physical harm to the individual crossing the tracks that poses a safety threat, structural damage to the rail line itself is a big risk in terms of derailment.

“By scrapping the railroad ties obviously that is going to effect the durability of the structure of the rail line as it’s intended as it runs through our area,” said Cpt. Reppert.

When a train derails, either due to striking a pedestrian, a vehicle, or damage to the track, Cpt. Reppert said the entire track may have to be “deadlined” which can cost up to $1 million for each hour trains aren't running.

Railroad Police work in partnership with local police departments. Kentaft says there are usually one or two railroad officers patrolling the nearby counties, but, they exchange information and manpower with area departments.

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