(TNS) — Steven Mangold was walking on a chilly, overcast morning last month near the 11th Avenue rail crossing in Neptune Township.
Then a NJ Transit train came rolling along.
Mangold — a 54-year-old father of two from Rockland County, New York, who also kept an address in Ocean Grove according to his obituary — was hit and killed. He is among at least three pedestrians killed already this year by NJ Transit trains, continuing a troubling trend in New Jersey and across the country. All three deaths occurred under murky circumstances.
Seven pedestrians were hit by trains at rail crossings in the state in 2020 and three died, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. Only five states had more pedestrians hit last year. Another eight people were hit in New Jersey while walking along the tracks — trespassers in industry parlance. Two of those people died. Officials are at a loss to explain the rising incidents.
It seems easy enough: If a train is coming, don’t walk across the tracks. But the problem is more complicated than that, and it’s growing. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of incidents involving pedestrians hit by trains at crossings in the United States jumped 25 percent to 189, FRA data shows. The number of pedestrians killed in those incidents increased 71 percent.
Only about 20 percent of the incidents were considered suicides or attempted suicides, according to the FRA.
NJ Transit isn’t the only agency struggling with increased pedestrian casualties at crossings. Rail safety experts and transit agencies across the country have been perplexed as they’ve watched a spike of pedestrians hit and killed at railroad crossings. In fact, pedestrians account for more than one-third of all deaths at railroad crossings in the United States.
“I think pedestrians at crossings are a big deal,” said Ian Savage, a rail safety expert at Northwestern University. “I think we’ve worked out how to stop cars from getting hit (by trains). We’re at a little bit of a loss at how to deal with pedestrians.”
In an effort to better address the problem in New Jersey, NJ Transit has teamed up with Rutgers University to study technology that can detect pedestrians, and in theory, increase safety around railroad crossings. The pair announced a grant of $357,000 in December to analyze the problem and test artificial intelligence equipment.
The grant will allow Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation to collect data for nine months to better understand the frequency, demographics and causes of people getting walking across the tracks when they’re not supposed to, Ali Maher, director of the center, said in a statement in December.
Xiang Liu, the lead researcher on the project, said this week his team has not started its study yet, but they expect to begin sometime this year.
The need for innovative solutions is clear. NJ Transit already uses pedestrian gates, together with flashing lights and clanging bells at many of its more than 300 crossings to warn both pedestrians and drivers of approaching trains.
There’s not much the trains themselves can do. They’re on a fixed path and can’t stop on a dime, even if NJ Transit trains are much more agile than a freighter lugging hundreds of cars.
So it’s up to regulators and researchers to work out how to better keep people off the tracks. And it’s up to pedestrians to be more careful near the rails.
But research at the federal level indicates that regulators don’t have a handle on why pedestrians are getting killed at railroad crossings. Pedestrian deaths are expected to surpass the number of fatal accidents involving vehicles at rail crossings, which itself remains a stubborn safety problem despite improvements in recent decades.
“While safety overall has dramatically improved over the past 30 years, the one area which has not seen the same improvement is pedestrian safety at crossings,” says a 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation. “This increase in fatal pedestrian incidents is quite surprising. The safety improvements in nearly every aspect of highway-rail crossings are clear, with the exception of pedestrians at crossings, which not only hasn’t seen the same benefit, but has actually trended toward higher numbers.”
NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett has acknowledged the need for improvements in pedestrian protection at rail crossings, and he’s hoping the agency’s work with Rutgers will be a step in that direction.
“The funding provided by USDOT to Rutgers University will help NJ Transit develop innovative trespasser avoidance solutions — protecting NJ Transit customers, drivers, and pedestrians,” Corbett said when the program was announced in December. “Ultimately, it will save lives.”
Neither NJ Transit nor the state Department of Transportation, which oversees rail safety, responded to questions for this story.
(c)2021 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.