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Quiet zone may boost rail safety

Deadly train incidents like the one that killed a Concordia College student Sunday - the 13th train fatality in Fargo-Moorhead since 2000 - may become rarer once a metro quiet zone is established, a Moorhead official said Monday.

Adam Bertek, 21

Deadly train incidents like the one that killed a Concordia College student Sunday - the 13th train fatality in Fargo-Moorhead since 2000 - may become rarer once a metro quiet zone is established, a Moorhead official said Monday.

"My hope was that we could somehow get this thing finished before we got another fatality, but it seems my hopes have been dashed," said John Rowell, a Moorhead City Council member. Rowell is chairman of a task force that has worked for years to set up a quiet zone where train whistles are banned.

Instead, enhanced safety features will be in place - officials say by this fall - that will include pedestrian gates and improved gate arms at street crossings.

Whistle-free zones elsewhere have kept accident numbers low, according to officials in La Crosse, Wis., and Duluth, Minn., where quiet zones have been in place for many years.

"I don't recall the last time we had a fatality," said Jim Benning, Duluth public works director.

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He said one thing keeping numbers down is the fact Duluth is a destination point for railroads and trains are usually slowing to stop when they come into town.

La Crosse, which has two main lines and an industrial spur, hasn't seen a train fatality in decades, said Ron Oleson, a retired city traffic engineer who is helping La Crosse upgrade its safety features, which now consist mostly of crossing gates and warning lights.

As part of Fargo-Moorhead's quiet zone, pedestrian-barring fences are planned for a large portion of downtown Moorhead, including the spot where 21-year-old Adam Bertek was killed by one of two westbound BNSF trains that rolled through Moorhead at about the same time early Sunday.

Bertek was killed moments after he ran out of Mick's Office, a bar next to the railroad tracks near the intersection of Eighth Street and Main Avenue, Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said.

The incident happened just east of a controlled railroad crossing.

Bertek, who according to witnesses had been drinking, apparently did not see the second train after the first one went by, Ebinger said.

Ebinger said he expected preliminary autopsy results, including toxicology reports, by today.

Police are also looking into how fast the train was traveling and whether its whistle was blowing.

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The speed limit for the section of track involved is 60 mph, said Steve Forsberg, a BNSF spokesman. Forsberg said he didn't know how fast the train was going at the time of the incident.

Bertek's roommate, Adam Swingdorf, described his friend as easygoing and always looking for the humor in things.

Swingdorf said he and Bertek were planning to walk home from the bar when the tragedy occurred.

"He (Bertek) never saw that train coming, it was so fast," said Swingdorf, who added he was surprised there were no barriers between the bar and the railroad tracks.

"There's nothing there now to stop anybody," Swingdorf said.

That will change by the end of the summer, said Eric Bach, senior engineer for SRF Consulting Group, which is working with city officials to establish a quiet zone.

The 2½-mile stretch through Fargo and Moorhead will be the longest quiet zone in the country when completed.

In Moorhead - where quiet zone work will cost more than $5 million - railroad tracks from Fourth Street to 14th Street will be buffered from pedestrian traffic by fencing and gates, Bach said.

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Mazes will also be set up at pedestrian crossings to further slow someone approaching the tracks.

Nationwide, more money was spent on improving safety at vehicle crossings in the past decade than on measures to keep pedestrians off tracks, said Steve Kulm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

As a result, the number of pedestrians killed by trains remains somewhat steady, he said, while motor vehicle deaths dropped dramatically.

Rowell said no number of safeguards will protect against every contingency.

"You can't necessarily prevent every encounter between a pedestrian and a train, but we're doing our darnedest to make it as difficult as we can for someone to get into harm's way," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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