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Rail service vital, but safety, security issues part of mix

Mississippi has 2,600 miles of railroad tracks moving freight and passengers through the state. Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) rails engineer Steven Edwards says use of these tracks may increase as fuel prices continue to climb.

“Train traffic is increasing, and we hear from the railroad companies that the numbers might double. That would be a big savings for shipping that is not time sensitive because trains can move bulk and weight more efficiently than trucks,” he said. “It would also take traffic off roads and every truck that is not on highways helps.”

Currently, there are 23 freight trains daily that travel the CSX Railroad tracks across the Gulf Coast, 18 per day on the Illinois Central line moving north to south through Jackson and 20 per day on the Kansas City Southern’s east-to-west route.

Edwards said there are three Amtrak passenger trains traveling twice daily through the state as they go and return to their destinations. They are the City of New Orleans which passes through Jackson from Chicago to New Orleans, the Crescent which runs through Meridian to New Orleans and the Sunset Limited which travels along the Coast on its journey from Jacksonville, Fla., to New Orleans.

Edwards said MDOT works hard to make sure all railroad tracks stay down and are not removed by railroad companies. “When the railroads aren’t making any money, they want to abandon tracks,” he said. “We’ve worked with them and kept two Illinois Central lines open — from Canton to Grenada and from Brookhaven to Natchez.”

With eight staff members, MDOT’s Rails Division administers five main functions. Those include rail inspections, constructing and upgrading safety devices, administering the State Railroad Revitalization Fund, administering the State Grade Crossing Closure Fund and representing the state on the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission.

With growing concern of terrorist attacks and threats, MDOT is also helping railroad companies with security.

“Each company has its own police and we’re helping them when they need us,” Edwards said.” I won’t say how, but we’re there when they need us and involved with investigations.”

Misty Skipper, a spokeswoman for CSX Transportation, said, “CSX takes safety and security very seriously and puts employees through intensive training. Employees on trains are the first line of defense and are the eyes and ears of the company.”

The CSX police are commissioned officers to protect the property and employees of the company. They have certain responsibilities and are authorized like other law enforcement officers, she said.

She would not be specific but said after the September 11 attacks, CSX joined with the Association of American Railroads to develop plans and have them in place for security. Skipper also refused to answer whether or not the company has had any type of threats.

Gulfport Fire Chief Pat Sullivan says his department is sending personnel all over the country to learn how to handle bombings and terrorists along with other security and safety training. Some of his firemen also attend Amtrak School, but that’s a normal part of their training.

“There is some specialized training, but most of our training is an extension of what we already knew, and we are learning what resources are available and who to call,” he said.

He said the 174-employee department recently held one of the biggest exercises in the country with the FBI, military and state and federal agencies at a former ship building site. Although none of it specifically addressed railroads, the training is adaptable to that and other security situations.

Vehicular traffic crossing railroad tracks is a major safety concern in Mississippi. MDOT, railroad companies and cities participate in Operation Lifesaver in an effort to stop train-car accidents.

“We’re all over that,” Steven Edwards said. “The Operation Lifesaver coordinator is hired on contract by MDOT and we are increasing our efforts in safety. We put up signals and gates and are trying to close some crossings.”

While accidents have been going down nationally for three years, Mississippi’s Harrison County is third in the nation for fatalities, he said, only behind Los Angeles County in California and Cook County (Chicago) in Illinois.

“That’s why we’re trying to close some crossings,” he said. “We propose to close 11 crossings in Harrison County and put up more signals and gates on those remaining.”

Misty Skipper said CSX tries to educate the public through Operation Lifesaver and works with other organizations. They train school bus and commercial truck drivers and go to schools to talk about safety with children.

Sullivan said, “Crossing a railroad track safely is basic. You come to a track, you stop, look both ways and listen. That’s for those that are marked and those that have nothing. If everyone did that, we would have much fewer collisions.”

The fire department responds to all train accidents with fire fighting equipment and paramedics. Sullivan, who’s been a fireman for 30 years, begs the public to pay more attention when crossing tracks.

“We see the outcome and it’s never pretty,” he said. “Normally, there is no explosion or train derailment because the car takes the impact. A car is no match for a train.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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