A variety of safety measures will sweep New Jersey Transit lines within the next year or so, transportation officials announced Wednesday, in an effort to reduce the number of accidental train deaths across the state.
The safety improvements, which include improved signage, warning systems and educational programs, are the result of a three-month study by the Safety Along Railroads Leadership Oversight Committee, formed in wake of the deaths of three teenagers by New Jersey Transit trains last October.
"We are really energized about this with a sense of purpose to move forward from the sorrow and grief of each railroad fatality," said James Simpson, commissioner of New Jersey Department of Transportation, at a press conference Wednesday at NJ Transit headquarters in Newark.
On Oct. 2, 2011, Nicholas Sabina, 17, of Fairfield, and Alan Mendez, 16, of Wayne, were taking a popular shortcut over a train trestle in Wayne when a train bore down on them and another friend. Fifteen-year-old Darian Robinson, of Little Falls, jumped to escape the oncoming train, but Sabina and Mendez were killed.
The following day, Michael Cabaj, 13, was struck and killed by a train after ducking under railroad crossing gates near the Plauderville station in his hometown of Garfield.
The deaths, three of 23 fatalities involving NJ Transit trains in 2011, underlined the need for better safety on and around the tracks, Simpson said.
Twelve "high-priority action items" with a focus on engineering, education and enforcement are expected to be implemented by NJ Transit and NJDOT within the year. The organizations will pilot gate skirts at some stations with grade crossings, a path used by pedestrians and sometimes cars to cross train tracks, to prevent people from ducking under gates. At the Plauderville station, "second train warning" signs will be tested to alert commuters of trains entering or exiting the station.
"Crossing gates is a pervasive problem in New Jersey," said Simpson. "It's dangerous, it's against the law and it models bad behavior for children."
Improving public education on rail safety is also a priority, Simpson said. NJ Transit is expanding its Rail School Safety Program, presentations held at schools near rail lines, to include compelling accounts from transportation officials involved in pedestrian train accidents. NJ Transit will also launch an aggressive public awareness campaign using social media, videos and advertisements.
Officials are also eyeing four high-risk crossings that will be studied for possible safety improvement plans: Morris Street in Dover (Morris/Essex line), Chelsea Avenue and Fifth Avenue in Long Branch (North Jersey Coast line), Outwater Lane in Garfield (Bergen County line) and at the Mount Tabor station (Morris/Essex line). The crossings were determined following a hazard analysis which examined the number of trespassers in the area.
Simpson did not specify which train stations would be getting safety measures.
While the number of accidental train deaths can be reduced through improved safety measures, not much can be done to prevent suicides, said NJ Transit Police Chief Christopher Trucillo. Suicide hotline advertisements and telephones were installed about a year ago at the Hamilton train station, which saw numerous suicides-by-train in 2010.
In 2011, eight suicides, , occurred on NJ Transit tracks.
"You just can't fence everything," said Simpson when asked if installing fences around train tracks to deter trespassers was an option. "To all of our customers, if you see someone trespassing on the tracks, just dial 9-1-1. Tell them where you are, that gets us to the dispatch, the train operators to slow the trains and stop them in the vicinity."