Thursday, June 29, 2017
Workin' on the railroad
Mike East, Supervisory Special Agent for the Florence Division of CSX Railroad Police, discussed his job at a meeting of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime (www.sistersincrimecentralvirginia.com)on Saturday, June 24.
Many of you may remember East from his days as a fire-rescue volunteer, dispatcher, then deputy with the Goochland Sheriff’s Office. His background, work ethic, and skills gained dealing with situations in remote areas undoubtedly helped him beat out five hundred applicants for the position.
During his four year tenure at CSX, East has not only earned a master’s degree, but attended the Virginia Forensic Science Academy to enhance his investigative skills. As East usually works alone, being able to evaluate and process a crime scene increases the odds of a successful prosecution. He participated in security during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer and the 2017 presidential inauguration. Trains can be an attractive target for terrorists.
The railroad police is comprised of appointed and commissioned sworn officers empowered by the United States Congress to enforce the laws of every jurisdiction where the railroad owns property. Railroad police, said East, go back to the days of the Pinkertons who were charged with foiling train robberies perpetrated by the likes of Jesse James, who had kin in Goochland County.
Cargo theft is still major concern for CSX, especially at Christmas time when UPS and FedEx add rail capacity to get all of those Amazon packages under the tree in a timely manner.
The James River is Goochland’s southern border. Except for a small patch at Maidens Landing, CSX tracks parallel the river, so we’ve got a lot of exposure to the railroad.
CSX railroad tracks, East explained, are private property. Accessing the tracks, except at marked road crossings, and walking or sitting on them is trespass, a crime. If caught, the railroad will press charges against trespassers. It is also dangerous and, well, stupid.
Modern railroad tracks are welded together so trains glide along, which enhances their efficiency, making railroad transport the most cost effective methods of moving freight. Gone is the “clickety clack” of old that announced the approach of a train from a long way off. Today, they move fast, are very quiet, and hard to stop. Putting an ear on a rail to listen for an oncoming train could well cost you your head. East said that young people walking the tracks using earbuds to listen to music have been killed by oncoming trains that they never heard approaching. “Trains and people don’t mix,” said East. “Being hit by a train is the worst way to die.”
CSX deploys cameras on locomotives and tracks, heat sensors to detect people on tracks, and other technology to leverage the relatively small number of railroad police. Drones, however, may not currently be used by law enforcement agencies. Locomotives also carry the equivalent of a “black box” to record travel data used when something goes wrong.
AMTRAK is a federal agency that uses track owned by CSX. Passenger trains travel at a higher rate of speed than freight trains. Crossing gates are timed for passenger trains, which is why the gates can be down for a long time before a freight train rolls through. Running the gates is also dangerous and stupid, East said. The weight differential between a car and a train is about the same as between a soda can and a car.
Given the small number of railroad police—East is based in Richmond, but his territory stretches into Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and North Carolina—collaboration with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies is vital for success.
East was dispatched to respond to the oil tank train derailment in Lynchburg a few years ago. As it took him a few hours to arrive—he is based in the Richmond area—local law enforcement initially secured the scene. The case wound up being handled by the National Transportation Safety Board. When multiple agencies are involved, said East, there can be a lot of “head butting” over which entity will oversee an investigation.
All sorts of things ride the rails, including military vehicles and ordinance. Railroad police cannot be everywhere at once, so they cultivate relationships with rail enthusiasts, who love to watch and photograph trains. Their observations and can be invaluable when investigating, and sometimes preventing, railroad crimes.
If you should see suspicious items, people, or criminal activity, near or on a track, call the CSX emergency number 1-800-232-0144 and report and record as much information as possible. Blue mile marker signs are displayed along tracks to pinpoint the location of incidents. If you see something, say something, to keep the trains safely rolling along.