Steese Expressway railroad crossing

The Steese Expressway railroad crossing is seen Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Fairbanks. Dorothy Chomicz/News-Miner

Traffic at a major intersection on the east side of town was held up for about 20 minutes last week after an Alaska Railroad train encountered a man lying on the tracks at the Steese Expressway crossings.

The train was able to stop before reaching the man and he was not injured. Railroad employees called 911 but did not try to remove the man because it is against company policy, according to AKRR spokesman Tim Sullivan. 

“For the safety of those people who are on the tracks and for the safety of our employees, we encourage them to not physically engage with people who are trespassing because they sometimes become combative,” Sullivan said in a phone interview Thursday.

The conductor of the train was able to talk the man into getting off the tracks before first responders could arrive and the intersection was cleared without further incident.

Trains tracks are private property and should be avoided for safety reasons, according to Sullivan.

“Our big concern is that trespassing leads to a whole heck of a lot of deaths in this country,” Sullivan said. “More than 500 people die on railroad tracks due to trespassing every year, and we’ve had 15 fatalities on the Alaska Railroad since it was transferred from the federal government to the state in 1985. It’s something that we are very conscious of and it’s really an important issue for us.”

The right of way on either side of a train track is also dangerous and should be avoided for a number of reasons, according to Sullivan.

“There are cases where people aren’t on the tracks but they still get hit by something. People don’t understand that those trains actually hang out quite a ways over the tracks,” Sullivan said. “We had an incident a few years back where a gentleman from the North Pole area wasn’t hit by a train, but he was snowmachining near the tracks and hit a piece of equipment, and it launched him from his snowmachine.”

The North Pole incident was one of three fatalities on AKRR tracks in the past five years, according to Sullivan. About a year ago, an Anchorage women was killed while lying down on the tracks on Arctic Boulevard in the middle of the night, and an elderly gentleman in Seward was hit by a train while walking his dog on the tracks in the dark.

The railroad takes steps to ensure that train tracks and right of ways are as safe as possible.

“In a lot of areas we’re clearing trees so that our engineers can have a better view of tracks, and we’re putting up fencing in high traffic areas to keep people off the tracks,” Sullivan said, noting that it wouldn’t be feasible or necessary to fence off the entire length of every track in the state.

The traveling speed of a train varies from mile to mile, but in populated areas they generally run at 25 mph or slower. Even so, a fully loaded train with about 70 cars full of gravel or freight can take up to a mile to come to a full stop, according to Sullivan. 

“People need to remember that the train can’t swerve out of the way,” Sullivan said. “We encourage people not to trespass and to stay off the railroad tracks as much as they can. There are just some places where you shouldn’t stand or walk or lie down.”  

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.