train tracks

Dean was hit by a Norfolk Southern train, which is the same train company that runs through JMU. 

On Feb. 24, a boy in Elkton, Virginia, was hit and killed by a train while walking along the train tracks. Edsel Dean, 15, didn’t hear the train coming because he had headphones in and was wearing a hoodie.

According to WHSV and the Elkton police, this is the third time an accident has occurred at this same crossing. Dean was hit by a Norfolk Southern train, the same type that travels through JMU. Susan Terpay, the director of public relations at Norfolk Southern, said JMU students often take shortcuts through campus by walking along the train tracks.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 27 trespassing incidents in Virginia  that resulted in injury or death in 2018. This is among the highest number of incidents for a state, Terpay said.

Terpay and her coworkers traveled to JMU to educate students on the dangers of walking on or alongside train tracks. They tell students that trains are much quieter than they used to be, which makes walking on the tracks increasingly dangerous. Trains are three feet wider than the tracks on either side, so even if someone is walking outside the tracks, they’re still at risk of being hit.

“It’s important to know that the only safe place to cross railroad tracks is at a designated crossing where cars go by or where it’s designated for people to go by and not to take any shortcuts on the tracks at other locations,” Terpay said. “It takes a train that is traveling at 50 miles per hour 18 football fields to stop. It’s not like a car. The mass of the train is so great.”

Walking on train tracks that aren’t at a designated crossing area is against the law and considered trespassing, which can be punishable by a fine or arrest. However, even though walking on the tracks is illegal, that isn’t Terpay’s main concern.

“Stay off the tracks, cross only where there is a designated crossing that you can walk across,” Terpay said, “It’s very important to be aware when you cross those tracks.”

Alan Dyer, a detective for the Harrisonburg Police Department, said that there’s only been one incident in the city since 2015. But that was intentional, as the individual committed suicide.

According to Dyer, trains almost always blow its horn when crossing an intersection, so being alert is important to one’s safety. Due to the unpredictability of trains, Dyer advises that people avoid walking on the tracks at all costs.

“It is fairly common for the mechanical arms to malfunction, so you never really know when a train is or is not coming around the corner,” Dyer said.

Marissa Willis, a freshman marketing major, is one student who has walked across train tracks at JMU. Willis said that she walked on the tracks a few times as a shortcut to get from the Village to Greek Row.

After hearing that Dean was hit and killed by a train, Willis said she’s more aware of the dangers of walking on the tracks. Before Dean’s death, Willis typically listened to music with her headphones in walking on the tracks, but now, she said she’s more aware of her surroundings when she walks across them.

“I know that’s definitely not good at all and a lot of people do that, but now after this, I’ll definitely be more careful now,” Willis said. “It’s definitely a safety issue for all of us.”

Contact Carley Welch at welchcw@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.