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American Towman Magazine Presents the Week in TowingJuly 11 - July 17, 2018


123 25928By Randall C. Resch

"A motorist is almost 20-times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than in a collision involving another motor vehicle," according to a statement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So, what can tow operators do to better their survival odds when working railway incidents?

There's a video on YouTube that shows a carrier working an accident recovery within inches of live train tracks. The tower is inside the cab of the carrier and makes no attempt to escape, while there's either sufficient room to load the vehicle from the opposite end vs. waiting until access is available.

A news article reported that the driver alleged police made him go to the front to load vs. stopping traffic within the intersection to load the vehicle from the rear.

If you were the tower, what alternative solutions would you have provided to the police officer to keep you or your truck from being hit by the train?

Why take chances?

First consideration should come from the dispatch office in regards to what assets should be sent to railway incidents. Maybe an on-scene safety manager is necessary? Recovery time should be the quickest possible, but loading a carrier on or near the tracks could be deadly.

Regardless as to the nature of the rail-involved recovery, dispatch should know to send the best tow operator and not the new driver.

Sometimes tow trucks and flatbed carriers don't mix with railroad right of way. Low clearances for carriers and tow trucks with low-slung fuel tanks could become snagged on the tracks, causing further risk.

While advanced notice may be passed down from the tow company to the local police, word may not get to the train's operator in time to stop the train. It takes as much as a full mile to stop a moving train; putting your faith in the train to stop is a deadly gamble.

The following examples are rail-involved jobs that resulted in tow operator fatality:
November 2016; Miami, Fla.: When a tow truck arrived to transport a vehicle from an earlier crash, a passing train clipped the bed of the truck, sending a car flying. The Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office reported that the railroad was notified of the accident scene, but was not contacted in time to get the train stopped.

October 2015; Toronto, Canada: A tow operator was killed after his tow truck was inadvertently parking partially on the tracks. When he noticed the approaching train and realized his truck was in its path, the driver hopped back into the truck to move it but was too late.

May 2015; Amite City, La.: A tow operator driving a flatbed carrier passed across the tracks directly in the path of an Amtrak train. The crossing did not have cross bucks.

December 2012; Cardiff, Calif.: A 27-year-old tow operator, mistakenly parked his carrier on a rail right-of-way. When he saw the train coming, he jumped into the cab to drive off but was struck broadside.

March 2013; Crawford, Texas: A tow operator responded to tow a disabled vehicle and accidentally drove onto an unprotected rail crossing and was struck by a BNSF train.

I can't say never when it comes to rail recoveries. However, the best and safest option may be to park well off the tracks and consider winching the vehicle away from them. Evaluate your approach so to remain completely away from a train or trolley. Be aware that if a train does hit the casualty vehicle, the impact could drag the tow truck or carrier as well.

Rail crossings are extremely dangerous; always anticipate a train may be coming from another direction.

Rail crossing scenarios demand towers make the right choices. Before taking any action, have a plan as to how to get the recovery completed safely in the quickest amount of time, and always be aware of an approaching train. Remember, there's no guarantee that the train's engineer is aware that you are working a rail incident.

Randall Resch is American Towman's and Tow Industry Week's Operations Editor, a former California police officer, tow business owner and retired civilian off-road instructor for Navy Special Warfare. Randall is an approved instructor for towers serving the California Highway Patrol's rotation contract. His course is approved by the California law enforcement community. He has written over 500 industry-related articles for print and on-line, and is a member of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame.
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