If you go
What: Festival of Trains
When: Noon to 5 p.m. today
Where: Science Central, 1950 N. Clinton St.
There were miniature trains traveling around miniature lakes, hills and valleys and through miniature tunnels.
There were wide-eyed kids trotting along the little tracks as little tankers, little Iron Horses and little engines sped by, bringing forth little shouts and squeals of glee.
And amid all of that was one Edwin L. Rahn, who didn’t come to Science Central’s Festival of Trains on Saturday to rain on the fun or darken the mood.
Instead, he came with a message for many Hoosiers – both young and old: Be aware when crossing railroads, stay off the tracks and be alert.
A volunteer for the nonprofit Indiana Operation Lifesaver – which advocates railroad safety – Rahn came to the festival with stacks of pamphlets, stickers and statistics about the dangers and myths of trains.
He said he was leaving with barely any freebies left.
That’s a good thing, according to Rahn, especially since Indiana typically ranks in the top five or so nationally in railroad accidents and fatalities.
“People just don’t know, or they don’t realize,” Rahn said. “A train can come out of nowhere and be on you before you know it.”
One doesn’t have to look far for proof of that. In the past two months, a spate of train crashes throughout the state left several teenagers and one woman dead.
This month, three Earlham College students walking along some tracks were struck by a train in the eastern part of the state, leaving one of the women dead.
Days later, another train struck a 15-year-old Wawasee High School student while she walked along tracks in Kosciusko County, killing her.
In October, a 77-year-old woman died when a train struck her pickup truck as she crossed tracks one afternoon in Milford, according to police.
The following Sunday morning, two teens were killed in Farmland when the car they were in drove in front of a passing train at 2:30 a.m.
The driver of the car – one of the victims – was drunk, police later said.
And in between those crashes have been non-deadly – but damaging nonetheless – crashes:
An abandoned pickup truck in Waterloo was struck and dragged a mile, causing $200,000 worth of damage; a motorcyclist in Waterloo was struck and injured; a Fort Wayne man made a wrong turn onto the tracks and ended up stuck on the elevated tracks on the north side of downtown.
Rahn, who retired from Fort Wayne Newspapers in 2001, has seen his share of the railroads.
His father was a train engineer, and his grandfather before him worked in the business.
Rahn traveled the railroads after his retirement to learn more for his volunteer position.
In that time, he saw people crawl under railroad cars, walk along the tracks and ignore warning lights or gates drive across tracks to try to beat a train.
“People just don’t know. They just don’t,” he said. “It’s a different world on the railroads. The traffic laws aren’t the same.”
Trains are running quieter nowadays, Rahn said. There might be no telltale clackety-clack or engine sounds to alert you if you’re walking on the tracks or parked along a crossing.
And even if there were, there is no guarantee the train can stop, Rahn said.
It takes 18 football fields – 1,800 yards – for a train to stop sliding and come to rest from a speed of 55 mph, according to Indiana Operation Lifesaver’s website.
Train engineers are federally mandated to sound the train’s whistle at most crossings – no matter what time of day or night. That includes crossings that have warnings and gates.
And still, people ignore the sounds or the warnings and try to make it across, Rahn said.
“Two-thirds of accidents are people ignoring those red lights or gates at crossings,” Rahn said. “They think, ‘The train won’t hit me.’ ”
In Texas recently, a float carrying military veterans through a railroad crossing during a parade was struck by a freight train.
Four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were killed in the crash while 16 other people were injured. Investigators said the float had crossed onto the tracks even though warning signals were on.
“Always wait for those red lights to stop before crossing, even if the gate goes up,” Rahn said, adding that another train might be close behind the one that just passed and could be re-triggering the warning signals.
All of what Rahn said to others Saturday might seem like common sense, but according to federal statistics there may be many Hoosiers who don’t take the message to heart.
Train crashes were on the upward swing throughout the state going into this year – rising from 98 in 2009 to 112 in 2010 to 116 in 2011, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Also, deaths from “trespass incidents” – people walking along the tracks – rose from six in 2010 to 11 in 2011.
But those are just statistics – just numbers – that may be hard to conceptualize.
Especially for kids and adults who were out for an afternoon of fun, an afternoon of watching model trains go by and make noise, all while Rahn talked to anyone he could about his message:
Be aware at railroad crossings and, whatever you do, stay away from the tracks.