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Local officials to meet about improving railroad safety

When Shanti Platt was eight months pregnant, she watched a man die in front of her eyes.

The young mother-to-be was waiting at a railroad station in Salem on what seemed like an ordinary morning when a man stepped in front of the train. She was looking right at him and, although his back was turned and she couldn’t see his face, Platt said the image has never left her mind.

“It just sticks with you, the impact,” she said. “It’s so clear still today. You just kind of go numb like, ‘Did this really happen? Did I see what I thought I saw?’”

When prompted for more descriptive details, Platt said the events that occurred unfolded quickly.

“It wasn’t even like the train had enough time to visualize that there was somebody on the tracks,” she said. “By the time they were done dragging this person there wasn’t a whole lot left. I’m sitting there while they’re bringing in bags and picking up pieces. And that’s the bottom line — that’s as descriptive as it gets. I just kind of tried to shut my mind off.”

Given her experience decades ago, the death of 13-year-old Diego Rodriguez in October left the mayor affected on a personal level. (Diego was killed while walking on the train tracks near Gervais).by: SUBMITTED - Train tracks between Gervais and Woodburn are not only high traffic areas for trains (as seen in this photo above, courtesy of Metro Creative Graphics), but also a lot of pedestrians, including 13-year-old Diego Rodriguez (right) who was killed in October after being hit by a train.

“I know what it felt like just to see that happen,” she said. “And I can’t imagine what it felt like for the family to go through. ... It’s such a great loss.”

Her strong reaction, combined with the efforts of local law enforcement agencies and Union Pacific Railroad, has prompted a number of safety initiatives in recent months since the tragedy.

Gervais police officers have become more vigilant about issuing trespassing warnings and citations around the tracks.

Signs have been posted throughout parts of the city warning residents about the dangers of walking on the railroad tracks.

Gervais schools hosted a railroad safety organization to talk to middle and high school students about the risks and dangers.

Law enforcement participated in a joint operation with other jurisdictions to ride in the train along the parts of the tracks looking for offenders.

In all, use of the tracks appears to be somewhat down since Diego’s death.

But unfortunately, the mayor said, she fears it won’t last.

“When you have a tragedy, as long as that tragedy is fresh in your mind you remember and you stop yourself from doing something that maybe is not appropriate,” Platt said. “But once that tragedy is no longer as fresh, then people pick up old behaviors and habits again.”

Part of the problem, she said, is that the path along the railroad tracks offers a significant shortcut to Woodburn for pedestrians, trimming off nearly two miles of what would otherwise be a very lengthy walk along the main road.

Beyond that, pedestrian crossings within the city limits are not conveniently-located and people illegally cross the tracks there too.

“It’s human nature,” she said. “If they can cut across the field there ... and go over the tracks to get to City Hall to pay their bill, why would they walk down a block and a half or two blocks and have to come back up? That’s people’s reasoning.”

The roughly quarter-mile stretch north of Gervais toward Woodburn is in fact a slice of track that sees a disproportionately high number of fatalities compared to others nearby. Since Gervais Police Chief Peter Spirup began his job four years ago, for instance, at least three deaths have occurred.

That said, the police chief stressed the railroad north of Gervais is not inherently more dangerous from a structural standpoint. It is simply that people are choosing to use it differently there.

“It isn’t necessarily an unsafe set of tracks,” Spirup said, “It’s just that people are making a choice to use that section of track. That’s what’s causing the problem.

“Woodburn and Gervais are very closely connected communities,” he continued. “There is a lot of overlap because of families and relatives and friends and shopping and all those kinds of things. A lot of people walk, and they walk on the tracks. They make that choice because it’s quick.”

With all of the concerns around rail safety, Mayor Platt and Chief Spirup have organized a meeting Wednesday with a representative from a group called Operation Lifesaver, along with Woodburn Mayor Kathy Figley, Woodburn City Administrator Scott Derickson and other local officials. The idea is to brainstorms new ways to approach the rail issue.

“When you can’t fully prevent someone from getting on the tracks, can you make an alternative to keep them safe?” Platt asked.

The Gervais officials emphasized that the meeting is a simple brainstorming session and, although vague concepts have been suggested such as fences or pedestrian pathways, nothing concrete is in the works yet.

Spirup said the goal is merely to come together to try to find a way to mitigate the poor choices some will inevitably make.

“We try to educate people to make better decisions,” said Spirup. “Still, we know people are going to make that choice and so we’re just trying to now move forward and say, ‘Are there other alternatives? Is there some way that we can come up with some other options for people so they’ll make a different choice?’”

The chief pointed to Diego’s death as an overwhelming catalyst for the action, noting the huge impact it had on Gervais, particularly him being a child.

“The loss of Diego was devastating to this community,” he said. “It still reverberates through the schools. There are still some kids that are shaken up by it. It devastated his family. It was very difficult to watch.”

Platt agreed, saying it gave residents a real-life example of something that had before been more theoretical.

“Not only is it this family’s child, not only is it our community’s child,” she said. “It could have been any one of our children.”




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