Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

Disaster Averted

This evening, Lisa was puttering around the property and taking trash to the dumpster when she saw and heard sounds coming from the railroad tracks that should not be happening. She came in and told me, "I think there's a truck stuck on the railroad tracks!"

I went outside and looked. Unfortunately, while it is one day after full moon, the moon had not yet risen, and it's very dark in Fernley Yard at night with no moon. But there was indeed a pickup truck with two wheels over the main at the West Fernley House Track switch at Union Pacific milepost 276. He was revving his engine hard trying to get over the tracks, but was only digging himself deeper.

I called 911. This was a potentially deadly emergency if the railroad wasn't notified immediately. I reported the approximate street address (my house) and the approximate railroad location. I'd forgotten that the switch is at MP 276, but I knew it was between Union Pacific control points RV275 and RV277, which would be enough to tell UP what they needed to know.

Another car showed up. It was a woman who the man driving the truck had called. I later learned that there were two young girls in the pickup when he drove onto the tracks, and they went with the woman. I told everyone that I'd called 911. About this time the man driving the truck managed to bounce himself over the tracks and into the "six foot" — the area between the main line and Fernley Siding. He then drove west a short distance, turned across the tracks again, and bounced over them (not getting stuck this time) and drove back around to where we were. He then started trying to use some of the loose debris to try and fill in the holes he'd dug.

Not a Grade Crossing

This is not a good photo, but it is the best I could get under the conditions. Three Lyon County sheriff's officers arrived. (The one in the middle has his emergency lights on in the photo, making it look sort of like the vehicle was on fire due to the low-light conditions.) The first deputy had Lisa and me stand aside while he dealt with the driver of the truck. I heard him start to chew out the driver: "What were you trying to do! Does this look like a road?" I obeyed the officer and moved over out of the way, talking to the woman with the two children to explain that Lisa and I live across the street and were the ones who had called 911. She thanked us for doing so.

When the deputy came over to talk to Lisa and me, Lisa explained what she had heard and said that they should contact UP right away to get a maintainer to inspect that switch for damage. The deputy was a little sarcastic with Lisa, saying something like, "Oh really? We'd never have though of that," which we didn't appreciate, because frankly, we were concerned that they wouldn't have thought of that. I really wish I had thought to turn the flash on my camera phone on so I could have snapped photos of the area around the switch. The big holes in the ballast worried me.

Drama at MP 276

Terrible photos, I know; it's all I could manage in the dark, even though I tried to hold still long enough for the low-light processing to take the photo.

From inside the house, we heard the UP maintainer talking to the UP dispatcher. Apparently, despite us pointing out the milepost to the deputy, and despite the deputy telling their dispatcher about the milepost, that 276 hadn't been communicated to the maintainer, and he had driven up the dirt access road just south of the tracks until he found the sheriff's cars still on scene.

West House Track Switch

Lisa and I walked back out to the area. This time I had time to go get my railroad lantern (a gift from Lisa: it's much brighter than an ordinary flashlight) and put on my reflective safety vest (the moon would not rise for around another half-hour or so). Illuminated by the spotlights from the patrol cars, I was able to take this picture of the area around the switch.

After the maintainer finished talking to the deputies and came back to his truck, Lisa and I came up to him. He knows us and has talked to Lisa before. We explained that she'd heard the original commotion and that I'd called 911 and tried to report the milepost number. He thanked us for doing so, and told us that the guy had actually gouged up the track more when he drove back up and over it west of the House Track switch than he had at the switch itself.

Having done all that we thought was constructive, we got out of the way and went back into the house. We didn't want to be underfoot. Besides, to some extent we'd be able to know more listening to the radio scanners for the railroad and emergency services discussion.

The UP maintainer inspected the tracks and switch for maybe thirty minutes before leaving. We heard no more radio traffic, so perhaps everyone got lucky and no harm was done.

West House Track Switch at Fernley

After everyone left, Lisa and I cautiously made our way back over to the switch and I was able to take this one photo with the camera phone flash. The phone has a tendency to shut itself off when taking flash photos, even when fully charged as it was tonight, so this is the only photo I managed to snap. This is the spot where the gouges in the ballast were before the maintainer filled them back in. At right is the switch lock for the House Track. That pickup truck came within inches of smacking into the switch lock, which would have been bad, although it probably would have set the signals to red and alerted the dispatcher immediately, so it would have been less dangerous than the stuck truck.

Speaking of dangerous, about two minutes after we went back into the house the first train of the night since this all happened came through. (We had been watching for signals, and had they been illuminated when we went out to take that photo, we wouldn't have gone there.) Looks like all is well.

This could have been a catastrophe, though. Amtrak was on time today (4:45 PM eastbound), but if they had been running a couple of hours late (very possible), they might have come along while that truck was on the tracks. Both Lisa and I had been keeping an eye out for the signals at West Fernley (MP 275), one mile west of us. Had they lit up, indicating that a train was approaching, we would have urged everyone to get away from the tracks. Fortunately, no trains came while this trackside drama unfolded, and nobody got hurt. We never heard what happened to the driver of the truck or whether he was cited for anything.
Tags: railroad, trains, union pacific

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