Safety concerns: Railroad ticketing angers peds

Officer Stuart Bruce writes tickets for trespassing on the railroad tracks in the Corner Parking Lot on August 15.

Signs haven't stopped them. Scores of trespassing tickets haven't stopped them. Heck, even a stretch of yellow police tape stretched last week along the tracks at 15th Street after a boxcar derailment hasn't stopped them. Nope. When it comes to crossing the railroad tracks that traverse the Corner and run alongside 15th Street, UVA students are a little like the Colorado River as it forged the Grand Canyon millions of years ago: relentless.

In a mere 10 minutes on Monday morning just before 10am, a Hook reporter counted at least three dozen backpack-toting students pouring over the tracks. And a contractor working on the former Satellite Ballroom building says the flow is strong all day long.

"More than 1,000 people cross this stretch of tracks every day," estimates Steve Johnson, owner of Albemarle Enterprises. From his perch in a backhoe in the Corner Parking Lot, he says he's been surprised at the students' audacity– particularly in tearing down the police tape.

"It's like they say, 'It doesn't apply to me," says Johnson.

In August, Charlottesville police began targeting trespassers on that stretch of tracks and citing safety as the reason for the crackdown. Judging from the Charlottesville District Court docket on Thursday, August 28, police were serious about the effort.

A whopping 58 offenders made the court list that day for that particular transgression, a Class 4 misdemeanor punishable by up to a $250 fine.

Students watch out for the heat, as they prepare to cross.

"If someone crosses," Johnson says, "they should arrest them." In addition, he believes UVA should be cracking down on students who trespass on tracks. UVA, he says, "should have some kind of quick class about train track safety," he says. Students who continue to trespass on tracks, he says, should "have a possibility of being kicked out of school."

But some of those on the receiving end of the tickets– and some Corner business people who want to encourage pedestrian accessibility in a town chopped into quadrants by two different railroads– disagree.

“If they want to keep us safe, why don’t they put in a pedestrian crossing?” wonders Katie Hartwell, a Corner restaurant staffer. On August 12, Hartwell was ticketed as she took the popular shortcut across the tracks by 15th Street to run an afternoon errand. She says she sees hundreds of people take the shortcut each day, a fact evidenced by a worn footpath leading up the bank toward the tracks from 15th Street.

Another recipient of an August trespassing ticket says police are wasting resources.

“We’re paying that officer,” says an outraged Marya Dunlap-Brown, ticketed on August 13 as she left work at UVA and headed home. Dunlap-Brown says as Officer Stuart Bruce was writing her ticket, his radio crackled with a report of a suspected drug deal happening.

“Get a criminal,” says Dunlap-Brown. “Catch someone selling drugs.”

Of the 58 alleged offenders slated for the August 28 District Court docket, 20 paid a $106 fee. Twenty-eight other offenders chose to serve 20 hours of community service to be performed within 60 days, an option Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Claude Worrell says will be offered to others ticketed for track trespassing in the future. Dunlap-Brown and Hartwell, both working mothers, paid $106 in fines.

This trespassing sign, facing St. Maarten's on 15th St., warns pedestrians to stay off the tracks. Other no trespassing signs have been repeatedly vandalized, say Charlottesville police and a spokesman for Buckingham Branch Railroad.

“I can’t do 20 hours of community service,” says Hartwell. Dunlap-Brown points out that the 20 hours to be free of a $106 fine made her answer clear.

“That’s less than minimum wage,” she says.

Officer Bruce is not permitted to comment on the ticketing, according to Charlottesville Police Captain Allen Kirby, who explains that train track enforcement “falls under the umbrella of safety.” And Charlottesville Police Lt. Mike Farruggio says he’s seen first-hand the horror that can occur from railroad trespassing. He recalls a UVA coed whose foot was severed on that stretch of tracks in the early 1990s, and another man who had both feet severed. At least two others have been killed on Charlottesville train tracks in the past decade.

Nationwide, track trespassing deaths are more common than some might imagine. According to the Northern Virginia-based train safety nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, 486 pedestrians were accidentally killed as they trespassed on train tracks in 2007.

Among other dangers, “You can get stuck in the ties,” says Operation Lifesaver spokesperson Marmie Edwards. “It’s surprising how quickly a train can come upon you.” Also, she says, many times people don’t realize that a train is so wide and they fail to get completely clear as the train crosses.

At least one Corner business owner says he doesn’t see a need for a pedestrian crossing.

“Just don’t be in such a hurry,” suggests Jim Roland, owner of St. Maarten’s restaurant. “All you have to do is walk one block and around. Get a 60 second-head start on life. There could be a train coming.” (In fact, crossing the tracks is at least a three-block-saving shortcut.)

But pedestrian activist Kevin Cox, citing the maximum allowed speed of 10mph along that stretch, doesn’t believe there’s much public risk from the trains.

“Generally it’s much safer to cross the railroad tracks than it is to cross the street in Charlottesville,” says Cox, recalling two handicapped pedestrians who were struck by cars in city crosswalks in the past two years– including one hit by an Albemarle police cruiser.

“Life is a risk,” says Dunlap-Brown. “If someone’s going to go that way, that’s between them and their insurance companies.”

She and Cox point out one glaring inconsistency in the idea that crossing tracks is tantamount to a death wish: crossing is perfectly legal wherever streets cross the tracks.

The issue of train track safety on the Corner– and pedestrian accessibility– has been on the minds of Corner merchants for several years. In fact, in 2005, a UVA-organized “Corner Workshop” brought city planners, University architects, Corner business owners, UVA staff, and students together to address problems facing the shopping and dining district. One of five “key issues” identified by the workshop attendees: “limited access due to the railroad and safety concerns related to illegal crossings.”

The construction of hundreds of new students housing units along 15th Street would make the pedestrian issue even more pressing. A suggested solution: a gated pedestrian crossing between 15th Street and the Corner Parking Lot.

Mark Lorenzoni, owner of Ragged Mountain Running Shop, says he hopes the city will take steps to increase pedestrian accessibility across the tracks.

"The suggestion we're going to make to the police is that we have a pedestrian crossing," he says. "It would cost some money, but the time is right. There are so many more students living in that area."

According to City Engineer Tony Edwards, the city is now considering options for the stretch of tracks between 15th Street and the parking lot, including a fence or some type of crossing. Still, any decision won’t happen soon. “Any discussions about this are preliminary,” says Edwards.

As for who would pay for a crossing and/or fence, that, too, is up in the air. Buckingham Branch leases the tracks from CSX, and according to BB spokesperson Gale Wilson, his company would welcome a pedestrian crossing if it were at either CSX’s or the city’s expense. Representatives for CSX did not return the Hook’s repeated calls.

Hartwell suggests taking all money collected from train track trespassers and putting it toward a pedestrian crossing– or several crossings. But Dunlap-Brown says she doesn’t want to see the city spend money to put in a flashing light or fence, no matter what the source of revenue.

“I don’t think a nickel should be spent,” she says. “If it’s private property, the police shouldn’t be monitoring it. And if the railroad is worried about safety, she says, “the railroad should put their own officer there.”

–last updated 12:21pm, Tuesday, September 16


Oftentimes enforcement has to be done in order for behaviors to change. As the article stated there have been injuries and fatalities on the tracks through Charlottesville.
Even slow speed trains (and they do not have to follow the 'maximum allowed speed through the city' as quoted above) can take a distance to stop and could still be on the pedestrian before they realized it - especially if the pedestrian is talking on the phone or listening to an ipod.
There are enough street grade crossings that the pedestrians should go to those to cross the tracks. It is safer there than trespassing.

I guess we now understand why speeding is out of control on certain main arteries in Charlottesvile? Longo needs to get his rookies off the train tracks and put them back where speed enforcement is once again a necessity. Which is more important. catching somebody going 48 mph in a 25 mph zone with a 4,000 pound automobile, or catching a UVA student walking across train tracks? As Kevin pointed out in the story, it's safer crossing a train track than crossing city streets. If you want a second opinion just as Jerry Mitchell (run over in a wheelchair by one of John Miller's police rookies).

Perhaps they should pass a law that states that crossing when a train is in a visible sight path is illegal and a 1000 dollar fine, and then write 1 ticket to prove the point you will take care of the safety concerns.

If you manage to get run over by a train going 10 mph then you simply need to become a poster child for darwins survival of the fittest theory.

It is nice to know that charlottesville is such a safe place that the police and courts can find time to spend keeping the front of the trains splatter free.

sickofthelocal rambos ...couldn't agree more...and what exactly is the most important ???? leave our university kids alone we are tired of funding the protect and serve folks or is it that time again to meet the county ticket goal !?!? (catch the real criminals rapers, murders , and the likes of those who cause horrific trauma for our citizens ...) Jerry Mitchell...what an unbelievable outcome , i'm just curious have we ever used the tax $ to get handicap access to and from the ch'ville court house pretty sad when ch'villes' own sheriff commented that it will take a poor challenged individual to struggle up the steps for a closed court hearing on the 2nd floor (wheres Henry Graff on a real story?)

not to mention if the person falls and breaks their neck... oh right it will be the challenged folks problem and I'm sure the county will figure out away to blame the victim or write another ticket(*^*$!$!@$???)

There isn't a pedestrian crossing because the railroad owns the land, not the city. The railroad doesn't want to pay for it. Ms. Dunlap-Brown is showing the typical ignorance and arrogance that many have come to expect from people associated with the University. It's not tresspassing if she is doing it or until she gets caught. Just because the police were being nice by not enforcing it as heavily before doesn't mean it wasn't an offense then or now. Everyone here seems to think the police got up one morning and said we need to enforce that. A more likely scenerio is that the railroad complained to police that people were cutting through and it was dangerous, hence more enforcement. Ms. Dunlap-Brown, I agree I'm furious my tax dollars aren't spent catching drug dealers because you won't quit tresspassing on someone else's property! Idiot!

so we have to pay?? and were you the friend in the picture to report to us how nice the officer was????

The Reason the railroad calls for enforcemnt is liability. The city does not respond and they are then named in the suit when some idiot tries to tempt fate.

I hope if something happens the Universtiy gets sued. They are sitting on BILLIONS and have the money to put a crossing in.

I guarantee you as soon as some famous or rich persons little blonde haired blue eyed snowflake gets run over there will be a crossing in within a month.

I have cross the railroad track many a time...sometimes after a good time at St.Maartens! I don't think the cops hang out there at night!

Wow. Two deaths and two injuries in 10 years? That certainly justifies the need for a dedicated officer to police the tracks. Enough is enough. Stop trying to protect otherwise law abiding citizens from themselves and please start protecting us from the real criminals in this town. Despite what the magazine rankings may lead you to believe, there is a negative element in this city, and it ain't college kids crossing railroad tracks.

What you don't seem to grasp is that people run the Train, when they hit and kill someone it's they who must try to live with it. Some have even left after someone they hit was killed, it's not a pretty site. Plus you are trespassing it's private property, would you like people going thru your backyard for a short cut?? No, you wouldn't like that at all. Remember that ticket was to wake you up..It's private property!

How did the county get nailed in this? Ms. Dunlap-Brown...your a great citizen, when asked to complete community service or pay, you break it down to a hourly rate. Why not do some good in the community? Sure it would suck to get this ticket, but if you know it's wrong, you do it, and get caught, quit crying and take your lumps.

quote: "...i’m just curious have we ever used the tax $ to get handicap access to and from the ch’ville court house pretty sad when ch’villes’ own sheriff commented that it will take a poor challenged individual to struggle up the steps for a closed court hearing on the 2nd floor..."

What do you know about the handicapped ramp at the city courthouse? How much are the taxpayers sepending on this project? The construction has been going on for months and months and months. Doesn't appear as if an end is anywhere in sight either. It's got to have a massive price tag on it.

The question of the century now -- and this questions proves I don't really know it all like some people often claim. What is the difference between somebody walking across the train track at Bodo's on Preston Avenue and the tracks at the corner? Are they not also trespassing on train property? Why are they not ticketed? The same for cars crossing the track at Bodo's, are they not trespassing on train property? This same argument would apply at all railroad crossings in the city where pedestrians and vehicles are legally allowed to trespass on train property while crossing train tracks. Would putting a small roadway from 14th Street to the parking lots then make it legal to cross the tracks?

Train-pedestrian-auto acccidents are going to happen no matter what type of "revenue raising" enforcement is exercised. Just like car wrecks, injuries and fatalities occur every day in this area. It's just a fact of life. The only possible difference is the fact a person hit by a train placed themselves in harm's way.

"Stop trying to protect otherwise law abiding citizens from themselves..." Obviously, they're not. Pay up and stop griping.

Yes, people have been died and been injured on the tracks in the past. What needs to be stated is that the select few that succumbed to the tracks were intoxicated. Train or no train, they were a danger to themselves. One of the victims actually passed out on the tracks. How many people out there know that crossing train tracks is against the law? Instead of the police department educating the community on safety, they allowed a rogue cop to hide behind cars and issue hundreds of tickets. These were law abiding citizens trying to get to work or school. Not hanging out on tracks scoring dope.
Perhaps instead of debating what size bricks the downtown mall should get, the city should install safe pedestrian crossings. We live in a city divided by train tracks. Train tracks that provide the city with thousands of dollars in tax revenue from the rail companies. It is the cities job to allow for safe passing of the tracks and install safe crossings. Get to work Charlottesville!

"These were law abiding citizens trying to get to work or school. Not hanging out on tracks scoring dope." Do we really know that?
"...the city should install safe pedestrian crossings." There's a great pedestrian crossing on University Avenue.

Sick I can answer your question. The diference is the railroad isn't complaining about people crossing the tracks near bodos. If they were you'd see a spike in enforcement there as well.

Why is just one cop taking care of this so called enforcement? Is it just during officer Bruce's hours that there is a major concern? Or perhaps the other officers are actually working to keep this city safe.

I would imagine he was assigned that duty.

"Perhaps instead of debating what size bricks the downtown mall should get, the city should install safe pedestrian crossings."

Hey Bob.......They did....It's called the friggin side walk that goes down 14th street and then takes a right under the train bridge up university Ave. But OH MY GOD IT'S 100 YARDS LONGER TO WALK.

A rogue cop.....for writing tickets.....whatever BOB!

The main issue here is that hundreds of people a day cross the tracks there. Something needs to be done instead of handing out tickets. Many people are unaware that it is even against the law. I was until this article. I have crossed those tracks many times myself but no longer will after learning this. Is it so wrong to want the city to either put a pedestrian crossing or a fence up? It is a shortcut for many heading to class, work or back to their car in the parking lot. It will continue to be a heavily traveled path until something is done.

Where would they put a pedestrian crossing on that private land in that area?

The building with the new CVS is the private land in question. The same person owns the corner parking lot that the pedestrians cross over to or away from depending on direction. I would like to think that the owner would be in favor of making it safe. This would include either a crossing or a fence to block travel. Nobody wants to see someone injured crossing the tracks or even crossing the street. So the logical answer on such a heavily footed path is to make it safe or block it.

Block it and sign it. They used to have a chain up there that told people not to cross through in the '80's. It would be very difficult to put in a pedestrian bridge since the tracks are at ground level.

I'm sure if you checked, most of, if not all of the tickets have been given out at night. I asked a local police officer why they were ticketing people and their response was to stop "drunk" people from crossing the tracks.
They surely wouldn't bother the hundreds of sober UVA students crossing the tracks every day to go to class.
I then asked the officer "why don't you just start cracking down on people being drunk in public?"
The officers response was, "oh, you can't do that, there are too many, if you bust one, you have to bust a ton of them." Duh!
I think we should not only have a gripe with the City of Charlottesville for wasting our money, and taking away from real crime fighting by putting a police officer on the railroad tracks, but we should also call out the Virginia ABC for being a joke.
If you are going to be totally ok with places like Coupe Devilles, Mellow Mushroom, Boylan Heights, and The Biltmore...(just to name a few of the main culprits) being about 75 percent underage on any given night, then leave all the drunks alone. Either do your job or don't. Don't just harrass the places that aren't greasing your palms.

The crossing at the Downtown Mall with alarms and cross cars doubles as a pedestrian crossing. Why does it have to be a bridge? Why not a smaller version for pedestrians only? Seems like a shame that this has been an ongoing issue since the 80's.

It was the railroad companies that asked the city to enact an ordinance against people walking along or across the railroad tracks. I doubt seriously if the companies would then put in a crossing volunatarily put in a pedestrian crossing resembling the ones already in place.

Trespassing is a crime, which law enforcement is supposed to enforce. One of these ticketed whiners will some day get in the way of a train, and smeared all over the tracks.

Then their relatives will sue the railroad for failing to protect them from the dangers of being near railroad tracks.

Cam, you are correct and quess what else they will do........Sue the police for not enforcing it. Then all the same people will be on here saying " why didn't those lazy cops do something"

Once again there is a pedestrian cross walk...the side walk that goes under the bridge. I love the people that say this is just for raising $$$$$ then turn around and say the city should pay to put up a fence. I guess the city just creates there own $$$.

I have crossed those tracks too; might do it again. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't get caught. If had I would pre pay it and go about my business. It is the duty of every individual in this country to know your rights and the laws of your area. Obviously someone complained and the police responded to a complaint from the the community. Who knows, maybe they will respond to your complaints and stop enforcing it. But to stretch this to being a rogue cop is just stupid.

Why would the railroad companies not want to put in a crossing if hundreds of people use a path? The railroad has been in place as long as the University. With large growth in the population, new roads and walk ways were built to accommodate the travelers. Why would the railroad be exempt from population growth? The city has made thousands of dollars off of the fines over the years and has done nothing to improve the safety of the tracks. There has to be a better solution than lining up pedestrians behind a squad car to issue tickets in mass amounts.

quote: "Trespassing is a crime, which law enforcement is supposed to enforce. One of these ticketed whiners will some day get in the way of a train, and smeared all over the tracks. Then their relatives will sue the railroad for failing to protect them from the dangers of being near railroad tracks."

That's just plain silly. Anybody breaking the law, and getting injured in the process, couldn't get past first base in suing the city police. No attorney with an IQ over 56 would take the case to begin with.

People cross the tracks by Beta Bridge and other spots too, using them as a convenient cut-through or short-cut in many instances. They don't get ticketed. This is an 'enforcement of opportunity' by cops taking and the city taking advantage of an easy opportunity to spring a gotcha on unsuspecting citizens. If they really want people to avoid crossing at a spot they'd pay for the fence - this is a revenue grab or just bad policing.

I have long been intrigued by this debate and it brings up a few good questions. What happens to people that work at X Lounge that must park thier car in the parking garage (or lot) near downtown? How are they suppose to get to work, there are railroad track there. Are they suppose to call a cab? Perhaps they could do this...if you are a licensed driver, you can cross the railroad tracks on your own (you can with a car). If you are seen crossing the tracks and you are legally drunk, give them a drunk in public charge. What they are doing really doesn't make much sense to mel.

This is an easy one to solve. VDOT and their Department of Rail and Public Transit are spending several hundred million of our Virginia tax dollars on private rail improvements including several tens of millions on the Buckingham Branch Railroad. Simply ask Charlottesville's and UVA's state Senator, delegates, and Commonwealth Transportation Board member to demand that DRPT use a few thousand of their rail improvement "give-away" money to build a simple safe pedestrian walkway and rail crossing with warning lights and gates that properly activate when trains approach right where the citizens have created a path. Obviously, if several hundred people use that route daily there is a "demand" for the needed public improvement, even for businesses. Charlottesville, don't be intimidated by the railroad industry. Use some common sense. It's not a question of lack of money, the money is tax money already being spent by the Commonwealth on rail improvements.

Rambo says:That’s just plain silly. Anybody breaking the law, and getting injured in the process, couldn’t get past first base in suing the city police. No attorney with an IQ over 56 would take the case to begin with.

Rambo what world do you live in??? Ever read the web site Every other day there is a lawsuit from a parent who's kid did something stupid and they are suing the city or the School.

And sometimes it is justified. I know of one case where a woman requested a red light for years. Her child got killed jaywalking and and the county settled for 150k. (they also put in a red light)

Building a conforming crossing makes a great deal of sense for this particular section of track. Punishing people who are safely crossing and trying to intimidate them into changing their behavior is not the best solution.

A little history. I attended UVa in the late 60s and lived on 14th StNW. Many is the time I came up the little hill on 15th St to cross over to the Corner. It had a lot of overhanging bushes and was sometimes referred to as the "Ho Chi Trail."
No one said anything then about it being trespassing. It think if something like if the railroad had tried something like that back then the students would have rose up and declared it The People's Railroad.
People walking the tracks or loitering on the tracks is one thing, okay to say thats forbidden. But merely crossing to the other side, that should be allowed.
Safety? How much to we want to protect people from themselves? As Kevin Cox pointed out, crossing the street is more dangerous. There are a lot more cars than trains. And how about cutting though parking lots? Thats private property too.
I have trouble with the city being used as the railroad company's security guard, funded by our taxes. And looking at history, the railroad companies were one of the leading oppressors of the "common man."
Maybe there is something else at work. Ticketing pedestrians at the Corner or Belmont for crossing the tracks is another cash cow for the city. Not unlike speed traps used in some rural areas. Just another example of what this pathetic piece of @#$% of a town is known for.