SHIRLEY -- Operation Lifesaver presenter Stephen Quinn visits schools, bus companies, Boys & Girls Clubs, and YMCAs all along the Fitchburg commuter rail route.
A 35-year railroad employee, now retired, Quinn says that he has been educating youth about train safety for the past 15 years. Having worked as a safety rules employee who started with the Ayer track department, Quinn knows what tragic railroad-related events look like.
"The railroad is used as a cut-through and for entertainment, and we need to stop that with education," he said just before a Friday morning train-safety program at Lura A. White Elementary School.
"I'm passionate about educating people beginning in kindergarten through high school. I am saturating the schools with this information. If it were up to me, I would have this in all the schools."
There is good reason for Quinn to be adamant about train-safety education. According to the Operation Lifesaver, Inc.'s website, roughly every three hours in the United States, a vehicle or a person is involved in an incident with a train.
Although the number of U.S. train accidents and fatalities has gone down over the past few decades, part of the reason that the number of pedestrians killed by trains has remained steady over the last several years is that trains are a lot quieter than they used to be. Another reason is that many people wear headphones or talk on cellphones while walking along railroad tracks.
While train safety is certainly nothing to laugh about, thanks to OLI, there are fun ways to educate youngsters about how to be safe around trains.
Look, listen and live
Before Quinn's presentation, LAW Principal Patricia Fitzgerald asked the school's kindergartners, first- and second-graders how many of them lived where they could see or hear the train. Virtually every student raised his or her hand.
"How many have ever crossed the tracks?" she asked, to a show of nearly all hands.
"How many have crossed without a grown-up?" Several students raised their hands.
"This commuter rail is a fast train delivering people from Shirley to Boston," Quinn explained as part of his introduction, "and you also have big freight trains here. The Guilford (now Pan Am) freight train does not stop at stations. Understood?"
The first half of Quinn's presentation included a PowerPoint titled "Look, Listen and Live!"
"That's our motto," Quinn said. "You can't use the railroad as a shortcut across the tracks. You can only cross at acceptable crossing locations at grade level."
"Trespassing is illegal and dangerous. Stay off the railroad tracks," started his slide presentation.
"Stay off! Stay away! Stay alive!" read another slide, as Quinn began showing a series of images of what not to do. Examples included jogging, riding a bicycle, or driving an all-terrain vehicle on the tracks, or putting an ear to the tracks to listen for an oncoming train.
"That's trespassing, and these people are putting their lives in danger," Quinn said.
Another slide showed a comparison of the size of a locomotive versus a car -- a huge difference.
Quinn made a point of telling students that the new rail being installed today has no joint separating rail-to-rail, so there is no familiar "clackety-clack."
"The smooth track allows trains to go faster, but creates less noise," he cautioned.
In addition, he warned the students, the freight carried by freight trains can be hazardous, as straps that can break are often what hold on materials. "So you need to stay a safe distance away," he said.
Quinn also warned the students about shortcuts. "If someone tells you to cut across the tracks to get to the ballpark, say 'time out,' for your own well-being and safety. And when railroad gates come down, that means a train is coming. You can't go around those gates."
Sly Fox and Birdie
Next, Quinn showed the students an animated video called "Sly Fox and Birdie," which, in addition to other educational videos, can be viewed on the OLI website, oli.org. The video made it fun for the kids to learn in a manner that seemed sure to make a lasting impression.
In the short movie, Birdie continuously finds sneaky Sly Fox getting into potentially dangerous situations: putting things on the tracks, throwing things at the train, playing in an empty boxcar, and walking down the tracks, on a railroad bridge and in a train tunnel. In each instance, the wise yellow bird explains to the reckless fox just why his actions are hazardous.
"Watch the train from a safe distance," said Quinn after the presentation. "Recognize railroad crossing signs and signals. The gate, bells and lights mean 'stop' -- period."
And if a car dies on the tracks, he said, get out fast, taking nothing.
Questions, answers and comments
Before the students returned to class with their Sly Fox and Birdie coloring books, Quinn took a number of questions from his young audience. One was how fast the trains travel.
"Seventy-five miles per hour," said Quinn. "It takes the train over a half-mile to stop, and it can't swerve."
Some students shared that they had seen adults drive their cars around closed railroad gates.
"A train running over a car is like a car running over a soda can," he later said. It has so much weight and speed, and it has steel wheels on rail. They are not rubber tires on pavement."
In answer to a question about bikes on the tracks, Quinn advised the students to always walk their bicycles across at gate crossings.
As the program wrapped up, Quinn had the students take an informal oath: "I, (state your name), promise not to use the railroad as a cut-through, for entertainment, or as a shortcut." Every hand was raised.