Data Informs Effective Trespass Prevention Strategies

March 23, 2021
Understanding rail trespassing behavior can help advise agencies of hotspots that may benefit from physical barriers and better focus public outreach and targeted education efforts.

Recently, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has put an emphasis on locating hot spots for trespassing, as well as identifying trends in the number of suicide incidents and fatalities and injuries. Such efforts include launching FRA’s Trespass and Suicide Dashboard and researching mitigation efforts by teaming up with law enforcement and utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor target areas. While these efforts have spurred success, more than 2,000 injuries or fatalities were reported across the United States in railroad rights-of-way from 2019-2020, according to FRA’s Trespass and Suicide Dashboard.

“Despite improvements to rail safety, every three hours in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train,” said Jennifer DeAngelis, director of communications and marketing, Operation Lifesaver, Inc (OLI).

So, what can agencies do? Understanding trespassing behavior can help inform agencies of hotspots that may benefit from physical barriers and better focus public outreach and education efforts.

Data Helps Identify Effective Mitigation Efforts

The more information available surrounding the factors for trespassing, the better agencies and the rail industry can prevent such occurrences. That’s because this data can then inform predictive modeling, giving agencies and rail service providers a better understanding of trespassing behavior and how to prevent it.

The Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) at North Carolina State University, in collaboration with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), researched this exact practice in the “Rail Network Trespass Statewide Severity Assessment and Predictive Modeling” study.

The research group used motion-activated thermal video camera systems to capture and analyze trespassing incidents. Sarah Searcy, bicycle and pedestrian program manager, ITRE, and principal investigator, explains the research group strategically mounted the camera systems beyond the railroad right-of-way to record 24/7 for at least one week during each season of the year at 11 different locations across the state of North Carolina. Locations were selected based on several factors, including FRA’s past five years of incident data. Roger Smock, NCDOT Rail Division and project committee chairman, adds that gathering data on pedestrian trespassers was critical in understanding the true count of trespassers that do not involve injury or death, which are already included in FRA’s incident reports.

“In addition, this research studied the behaviors of trespassers. Identifying these behaviors is very important when applying effective treatment and mitigation efforts,” Smock said. “Measuring the scale of trespassing and understanding the behaviors of trespassers are paramount to informing and educating community stakeholders, policy makers and enforcement and safety officials.”

The cameras captured individuals, pairs, groups, various ages and even people walking dogs and pushing strollers, but one behavior stood out—95 percent of trespassing events involved crossing the tracks, says Searcy, noting most events happened in the daytime with the majority of people walking along or through the right-of-way.

“Several factors were identified as associated with higher frequencies of daily trespassing events, including greater densities of pedestrian attractors such as schools, universities and colleges, social services and restaurants and other eating places in proximity to the railroad right-of-way, and in combination with less access to vehicles as means of transportation to work, greater density of racial minorities and greater density of low-income housing,” said Searcy.

Models for estimating and predicting trespassing were created using the data collected from the research. Profiles of trespassing activity by season, month, week day and hour of each day were also created for each study location “that can inform local-level intervention strategies,” Searcy added.

“The potential reduction in loss of life and its associated costs are compelling justification for investing in the data collection needed to inform strategies for mitigating pedestrian trespassing,” Smock concluded.

Physical and Visual Barriers Serve as Efficient Deterrent

Considering ITRE’s research findings, which saw most trespassing incidents from the study in North Carolina involve crossing the tracks as opposed to moving along the right-of-way, agencies may consider implementing anti-trespass panels (ATPs), such as ones available from L.B. Foster which can be customized for specific locations. 

“[ATPs have] been proven to reduce incidents by up to 80 percent,” said Sarah McBrayer, general manager, transit products, L.B. Foster. “The ATP is a sustainable, environmentally friendly product manufactured from recycled rubber bonded with a proprietary polyurethane system for added strength.”

L.B. Foster’s panels are assembled on-site using a kit included with the panels. The ATP attaches to adjacent panels with a fixing that passes under the rail, creating a single matrix across the track. This ensures panels do not become dislodged, when installed properly. After the ATPs have been connected, the panels are then cut to fit the specific location’s requirements. Agencies can install these panels next to highway-rail grade crossings, terminal platforms and rail yard entrances. 

“[ATPs] discourage trespassing because they are visually and physically difficult to walk on. They are also used in more remote or rural locations to prevent livestock or other animals from accessing the track,” McBrayer explained. “Panels are available in three styles to fit any application – single flanged to fit each side of the track, double flanged designed to fit within the track gauge and flange-less for all other applications.”

McBrayer adds the ATPs can be installed in a multitude of environments and weather conditions and work best around fixed structures like fencing, walls, ends of platforms or dense vegetation. Little maintenance is required andthe panel has a conical profile design to allow dirt and debris to be easily cleared. McBrayer notes ATPs can last for more than 25 years when installed correctly. 

Educating and Informing Stakeholders Remains Critical

Continued targeted education and public outreach are additional trespass mitigation strategies that are equally as important. By identifying specific communities or behaviors that lead to unsafe decisions made around rail infrastructure, outreach can be crafted to address these particular issues.

For instance, OLI recently developed and released several audience-specific safety campaigns, such as materials for people experiencing homelessness, as well as the professionals and volunteers who work with them.

“Our goal is to educate and empower individuals experiencing homelessness to make safe choices for themselves around tracks and trains,” said OLI Executive Director Rachel Maleh. “Our Respect the Rails: Choose Safety materials educate professionals and volunteers who work with people experiencing homelessness about the dangers individuals may face near trains and tracks."

Other new campaigns include the Low Clearance PSA, which brings attention to the possibility of low-clearance vehicles like buses getting stuck on a railroad crossing and what action to take should this happen via audio and visual clips; and the Train Safety Savvy game, an interactive online game for kids ages seven to 10 that tells kids how to make safe choices around railroad tracks and trains. 

About the Author

Megan Perrero | Associate Editor

Megan Perrero is an award-winning B2B journalist. She is the associate editor of Mass Transit magazine where she assists with developing the newsletters and social media posts, along with the online and print content. She is currently a board member for Latinos in Transit and serves on the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee. She’s based out of Chicago, Ill.

Prior to joining the team, Perrero gained experience covering the manufacturing and processing food and beverage industry, the agriculture industry and the library industry.

Perrero is a Columbia College Chicago alumna where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and a minor in public relations.