By Scott Beveridge
ON THE RAILROAD, Pa. – A trip today into southwestern Pennsylvania coal country aboard a train with a camera feed from the front of the locomotive into the passenger cars had us sitting on edge at times.
We watched the TV screens and braced for the worst as the train approached one railroad crossing after another with limited views of the approaching roads between Pittsburgh and West Brownville, Pa.
This was a 60-mile one-way route past decaying industrial buildings and other tall structures that hug the Norfolk Southern line and obscure the side vision of those who regularly ply the rail line for a living.
Imagine the nerves of steel this work required of the conductors and engineers who man these heavy locomotives, which can move at 55 mph and take a mile or more to come to a halt after a collision.
This excursion known as Operation Lifesaver was hosted for the media by the railroad and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to help spread the word about the dangers of crossing railroad tracks.
An editor from Johnstown was along for the ride as research on a profile she has been writing about a retired engineer whose life changed forever after a train he operated killed someone. Meanwhile, I was using a laptop to feed live reports about the event to the Washington Observer-Reporter newspaper’s Web site.
This train once struck a car crossing tracks two years ago in North Carolina, Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said. Another safety train was traveling behind a locomotive two years ago between Reading and Harrisburg when the that engine struck a car occupied by a woman and young child.
“It was sobering to say the least to witness the damage,” Husband said. “Fortunately both were not injured. We’ll probably see some trespassers today.”
“It’s amazing the risks people take,” added state Rep. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who also was along the ride.
We were fortunate to have made it back without incident to the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh.
The closest we came to a collision took place in Monongahela, when the driver of a beat-up blue pickup truck successfully won a race over a crossing as the train’s whistle blared.
It was enough of a scare, though, played out with the assistance of modern technology used in two cool, retrofitted 1949 passenger cars.