How your cell phone can stop a train

Photo credit: Corey Clark

When flood waters caused a railroad bridge near Little Sioux to collapse a few weeks ago, the Union Pacific Railroad had no way to know the link between Council Bluffs and Sioux City had been compromised.

Luckily, none of the eight trains that use the bridge daily were in the area, but the collapse of the Union Pacific bridge could have been catastrophic if the railroad had not been quickly notified of the bridge failure. That notification came when a driver on an adjacent road called the emergency contact number on a sign positioned at a nearby railroad crossing.

Phil Meraz from the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Rail Transportation, said, “There is a common misconception that the railroads are public properties. The truth is rail lines are owned by private companies. You can’t just pick up the phone and call the Iowa DOT if there is an issue. You have to find out who owns the line and then find the contact number for that company. On top of that, each rail crossing has a specific number.”

He continued, “Trains can show up at any time and may take a mile or more to stop, so seconds count when there is an emergency. Even if you get through to the right railroad, it won’t be very helpful to tell the person on the other end of the line that the crossing is on Third Street if they are in Canada and you’re in Iowa. You probably don’t have all the information the railroad needs.”

SignwcloudsTo make reporting problems or emergencies with the railroads easier, the Federal Railroad Administration mandated standardized Emergency Notification System (ENS) signs beginning in 2012. Because of the hundreds of thousands of public and private crossings in the United States, the railroads were given until Sept. 1, 2015, to have a sign in place at every public or private crossing. Each sign lists the railroad’s emergency contact phone number and the identification number of the rail crossing. One phone call to that emergency number can stop a speeding train in a matter of minutes.

Meraz has traveled the state and nation to increase public awareness for the signs. “Many of these signs have been in place for years, but people, even law enforcement, haven’t noticed them. These signs are the best, fastest link from the public directly to the railroad,” he said. “With several different railroads in Iowa, it is difficult to know which company owns which track and who to call if there is an issue. Simply reading the sign and taking action can possibly save a life.”


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