DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON'T
One of the most dangerous assignments a railroad can give is ordering its employees to mount and dismount moving equipment. When you stop to think about getting on a moving train car, you are putting yourself into the path of a heavy rolling box of steel that will kill you if you don't perfectly mount it. It just makes no sense. Railroads have rules forbidding fouling a track, yet at the same time require employees to foul the track directly in the path of a moving train car to mount it. The Federal Railroad Administration analyzed switching injuries and fatalities and determined that an excessive amount of switching injuries are caused by mounting and dismounting moving equipment. When the FRA was asked for its official position of the safety of this work practice, it admitted it had not analyzed the practice and had no rule if effect or proposed. However, the FRA did cite to the BNSF rule which lists getting on or off moving equipment as one of the ten deadly sins.
Judging the speed of a moving train car coming directly at you can be very difficult. Yet if you misjudge the speed of the oncoming equipment and attempt to mount the train car, the results can be catastrophic. The problem with judging the speed of a train coming directly at you is that the human eye is not good at judging the speed of ‘looming' objects. Looming is the phenomena of an object moving directly at you as opposed to an object moving across your field of vision. When an object is moving across your field of vision the eye is better equipped to estimate the speed of the object more accurately. Yet when preparing to mount moving equipment you must place yourself in the path of the moving train car. This position is the worst possible for judging speed of a moving object. Studies have blamed the looming effect for grade crossing accidents because the motorist stopped before the tracks, looking down the tracks has a very difficult time judging the speed of the looming, approaching train.
TROUBLED TIMES AHEAD
Another problem with judging the speed of an approaching train is time. The less time you have to judge speed, the less likely you will be to make an accurate estimate of the correct speed. Speed is a function of time and distance. Your brain estimates speed by observing how much distance a train car travels over time. The more time you have to observe a moving object, the more accurate your speed will be. Conversely, the less time you have to observe, the less accurate your estimate of speed will be. So, if you must operate a switch, walk past the switchstand, turn and mount a train car coming at you, if the train car is close, you probably can not accurately estimate its speed. And if it is going too fast, you probably will not successfully mount it and may be seriously injured.
SIZE DOES MATTER
Another problem with estimating the speed of a moving train car is its size. The larger an object is the slower it appears to be moving. The best example of this phenomena is watching an airliner approach the airport to land. If you have ever driven near a major airport and seen the airplanes lined up to land, they appear to be slowly floating in the air towards the airport. Really, they are moving at over 100 mph and on approach up to 200 mph. The same applies to train cars. Due to their size, train cars appear to be traveling slower than they really are.
DON'T FORCE THE ISSUE
When you combine size, time and looming, getting on a moving train car is extraordinarily difficult to do successfully, especially if the train car is moving too fast. At ten miles per hour, the forces exerted by a moving train car exceed 700 lbs. That is, if you try to grab the grab iron of a train car moving 10 mph, it will exert over 700 lbs of force on your arm. In other words, most people can not do it and will not successfully get on the moving train car.
Acceleration is another critical factor. If an approaching train car is accelerating or decelerating and not maintaining a constant speed, it is nearly impossible to accurately judge the speed. Once you have a speed estimate and prepare to mount, the train car will not be where you expect because of a change in speed due to acceleration or deceleration. Because there is a lag time in human reaction, acceleration or deceleration makes the process of attempting to board a moving train car nearly impossible. By the time you reach out to grab the grab iron based on your perceptual estimation of where the grab iron should be, it is not there because it has changed speed and therefore its location.
TREADING ON DANGEROUS GROUND
Finally, the environment can adversely affect one's ability to mount a moving train car. Darkness is a critical factor because the ability to observe a large, looming accelerating train car under low ambient lighting is extremely difficult. Track and train car conditions can cause the train car to move laterally so not only must one judge the location of a moving, sometimes accelerating grab iron in space and time on a straight line, if the train car is rocking and rolling, the location must be judge in an additional plane-laterally. Add to that the condition of the ground surface you are standing on, usually unstable ballast that is not smooth and level and might give way under foot as you try to step up.
ADDING INSULT TO IRONY
When questioning why some railroads expect its employees to mount moving equipment, one might expect that in exchange for the obvious hazard to the employees there is some tangible benefit to the railroad in fuel and time efficiency. There is none. There is no appreciable fuel or time savings to the railroad from employees getting on moving equipment over stopping the equipment for employees to mount.
Getting on moving equipment is an extremely hazardous task that should have been outlawed years ago. It is unconscionable for railroads in this day and age to permit employees to get on or off moving equipment, except in an emergency. There is no benefit to the railroad to offset the extreme hazard to the employee. It is a deadly sin.
YOUR NEXT MOVE
If you are employed by a railroad that expects you to mount and dismount moving equipment, take heed of the perils and if there is any doubt about getting on or off, any doubt at all, stop the movement.