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Death on the tracks: Train deaths keep mounting

When Trevor Newman left home for a nearby Burger King on New Year's Day 2013, the teen took a shortcut across some SEPTA tracks.

SEPTA train tracks between Hulmeville Rd., and Hulmeville Ave., in Langhorne, Pa., on Mar. 12, 2015. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )
SEPTA train tracks between Hulmeville Rd., and Hulmeville Ave., in Langhorne, Pa., on Mar. 12, 2015. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )Read more( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

When Trevor Newman left home for a nearby Burger King on New Year's Day 2013, the teen took a shortcut across some SEPTA tracks.

He never made it to the other side, becoming the fifth person killed on the same stretch of the West Trenton line in Langhorne, Bucks County.

SEPTA denies responsibility, filing a motion last week to dismiss a civil suit filed by Newman's grandparents. The family claims that SEPTA and track-owner CSX failed to take lifesaving measures, such as erecting a fence, in an area notorious for illegal crossings.

Such cases rarely succeed, because the victims trespassed on private property. But the Newman suit underscores a long-standing conundrum: How to prevent so-called trespasser fatalities.

Next week, the National Transportation Safety Board will hold its first forum on the issue. Experts warn that solutions have been elusive. More than 8,000 deaths have occurred across the country in the last 18 years.

Depending on the study, as many as half are suicides. And the people who die accidentally - mostly men - are often intoxicated or wearing headphones. Some are stealing copper from railway equipment.

For 40 years, the national death toll has remained virtually static, averaging better than 450 annually. Last year, the count showed a 22 percent spike to 526, compared with 2013, federal data show.

In Philadelphia's eight-county region, 187 people have died - about 10 a year - since 1997.

The tracks near SEPTA's Langhorne station have been especially deadly.

In 2011, Julio Medina, 22, stepped in front of a train there, committing suicide. Michael Patrick Sobon, 19, died in 2008 while sitting on the rails, talking on his cellphone.

After drinking at a bar, two men in their 40s, Edwin Celins and Max Lawrence, walked onto the West Trenton line in 2002. One had a crack pipe in his pocket. Both were killed.

Newman, who was 16 and profoundly deaf, took a well-worn footpath to cross the tracks. The train struck and killed him as he tried to jump out of the way.

In the Philadelphia region, other victims include Scott Stevens, 24, who in 2011 was listening to earbuds while walking on SEPTA's Warminster line in Upper Moreland, Montgomery County. In 2008, Mark Pentony, 50, was drinking at a bar in Croydon, Bucks County, before he took an often-used shortcut across Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

In August, Riley Moscatel, 17, a transgender teen struggling with issues regarding his body, intentionally stepped onto the same tracks. And in 2010, Gina Gentile, 16, and Vanessa Dorwart, 15, followed through on a suicide-pact in Norwood, Delaware County.

Half of the 44 people killed on railroad land in the region from June 2011 through December 2014 died on SEPTA tracks, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Five were lying on tracks, one was sleeping, and the rest were walking or standing.

No magic solution

For years, national experts have debated strategies. Some have called for costly fencing, underpasses and more arrests.

The national nonprofit Operation Lifesaver tries to educate the public, as do railroads and agencies such as SEPTA. Schools are targeted - but also bars. Some beer coasters now carry warnings.

SEPTA also posts suicide hotline numbers at stations.

"There really isn't any magic solution," said David Clarke, who studies transportation safety and railroads as director of the University of Tennessee Center for Transportation Research.

"You can't patrol continuously over the entire system," he said. "You can't easily maintain fences over the entire system. Signs get torn down and defaced. It's the kind of thing where you have to maintain a constant vigilance."

Success is also hard to measure, said Ian Savage, a Northwestern University economist who focuses on rail safety.

"The death counts are usually so small in one location, how can you say in one year whether things have improved?" he said.

Suicides are also difficult to prevent.

"What we observed in Britain is that fencing moved suicides to different places, such as stations and grade crossing," Savage said.

Newman, whose family is suing SEPTA and CSX, knew the dangers. His grandfather worked for Amtrak and repeatedly warned him, according to the police report on Newman's death. It's unclear why he took the shortcut that day to meet friends at the Burger King.

The Neshaminy High School student lived with his grandparents. And it was his grandfather, Richard Hutchinson, who identified his body as it lay under a sheet not far from a crowd of onlookers and police.

"He was a very popular kid," said John Benson, the Doylestown-based attorney who filed the lawsuit in Bucks County Court. "He had his whole life ahead of him, and the train cut it short."

Benson said SEPTA and CSX should erect fences despite the cost.

"It's expensive to put lifeboats on ships, but you do," he said.

Prejudice against victim

Few suits, however, make it to trial, and even fewer succeed. Some states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that attempt to shield railroads from civil liability.

Pamela O'Dwyer, a Tennessee-based attorney who has represented plaintiff's across the country, said the civil suit success rate has steadily declined.

"We lose because the juries have seen every billboard out there that says only a fool gets hit by a train," she said. "The prejudice against the victim is huge."

The ones that prevail usually involve children who survived with catastrophic injuries. Many cases are settled.

For example, in 2006 a federal jury in Philadelphia initially awarded a $24 million judgment against Amtrak and Norfolk Southern. Two teens in Lancaster County had suffered severe burns from electrical wires atop a train in a rail yard. The case was later settled after an appeal.

In Pennsylvania courts, the number of successful suits decreased after lawmakers passed a 2004 law granting railroads immunity from trespasser claims.

State Rep. John Maher (R., Allegheny), who authored the statute, said the suits "are akin to someone breaking into your house and suing you for falling down the steps."

Two weeks after Newman died in Bucks County, another teen, Chris Mongillo, 15, killed himself on the same three-mile stretch in Langhorne, bringing the death toll to six since 2002.

Middletown Police Sgt. Michael Lubold, who has investigated many of those deaths, said: "Short of completely fencing off the whole rail system, I don't know what they can do to prevent it."

He routinely responds to calls about teenagers along the West Trenton line.

"When we show up, they run," he said. "They know they're not supposed to be on the tracks."

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