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The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

Are the campus train tracks safe?

A Norfolk Southern train cuts directly through Dickinson’s campus coming from Harrisburg and stopping a little farther than Carlisle. It passes behind family homes, student dorms and densely-populated areas such as the intersection at Cherry and West Louther Streets, where hundreds of Dickinson students cross daily. Despite passing through this highly student-populated area, very few safety measures are in place. The horn of the train and the flashing red lights that can only be seen on the road are pedestrians’ only indications of the train’s path.

Dickinson is addressing the possibility of a train accident with a tabletop exercise set to take place this summer. The exercise was prompted by the accident in East Palestine, Ohio in 2023, in which a Norfolk Southern train derailed and spilled numerous toxic chemicals, causing a fire. As explained by Lauren Lasater, Director of Compliance & Enterprise Risk Management, “There were general concerns after what happened in East Palestine, so we wanted to ensure we explored the possibility of a train incident in order to test our response, policies, and procedures to such an event.” 

The exercise is meant to provide a simulation of a train derailment or accident, allowing participants to strategize a response, as explained by Lasater. “Components include scenario development, participant briefing, discussion facilitation and debriefing. The scenario outlines the simulated emergency, while the briefing ensures participants understand their roles,” said Lasater. “During the exercise, I guide discussions on response strategies. Finally, a debriefing session evaluates performance and identifies areas of improvement.”

This planned exercise comes shortly after a tractor-trailer hit a train at 400 North Bedford St. on Feb. 26. The driver, who saw the flashing lights, thought he had more time and attempted to accelerate over to the other side of the tracks, at which point the train hit the flatbed of the truck, spinning it violently. Although there were no injuries, the accident poses two important questions. If the accident had taken place in a densely populated area such as the crossing at West Louther and Cherry streets, could students have been hit? And, if there was an accident at the same crossing, do the trains carry any hazardous materials that could prove fatal to students?

The Norfolk Southern train starts in Harrisburg and makes stops at Camp Hill, New Kingston and Middlesex before ending its route just outside of the center of Carlisle Borough. Although the contents of the train are confidential for safety reasons, its tracks lead to  warehouses like Allen Distribution, Carlisle Syntec and Bimbo Bakeries.   

Deputy Mayor of Carlisle Brenda Landis views the situation in a positive light, explaining that the train takes more tractor-trailers off the road, which is her main concern. “I don’t know of any issues with the train and pedestrians, its going so slow and its constantly blaring along with the flashing lights,” she said. “My biggest concern is trucks and cars. I see a bigger problem with cars seeing the train coming through and thinking ‘oh I’m going to go quickly this way’ and speeding on roads and then not paying attention to people.” 

Landis also explained that some of the crossings in town, especially around Dickinson, are surrounded by public lands and therefore could be used as a pedestrian corridor. Landis said, “People walk not just the railroad tracks but the space next to it because they think it’s safer because cars are what are hitting pedestrians. So, thinking about trying to use these spaces that we would otherwise do nothing with, and people are already doing it so I’m not going to advocate at all, I actually do it myself.”

“I’ve walked along the tracks to get to Rector or cut across to get to DPS” said Colin Schweitzer ’24, who lives in the Track and Field house in front of the tracks. “From the backyard we’ll constantly see middle schoolers or highschoolers running down or biking down. It’s an everyday occurrence.”

Schweitzer expressed little concern about the probability of an accident, saying “Every so often there’s a car that will try to weave and get past the light quickly but nothing that’s been close to an accident.” However, when asked if he believed Dickinson could respond appropriately to a train accident, Schweitzerwasn’t quite as optimistic. “Probably not, just because Dickinson has no experience doing that, even the agencies and what not, have biffed it horribly, so it seems like no one is prepared for those situations. Especially after seeing the East Palestine incident which was handled terribly.”

Fedor Grishanov ’25, a resident of the Russian House which also finds itself close to the tracks, appeared more optimistic. “The house gets a bit shaky but it’s not too much of a distraction. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen any possibility of an accident.”

When asked how he thought Dickinson would respond to a train accident, Grishanov  said, “It depends on what kind of accident it is. We’d definitely hope so, DPS has helped us with general issues but obviously a train derailment is completely different, but I guess I’m more confident than not.” 

According to the Federal Railroad Association, there have been a total of 12 fatal accidents and 108 injuries involving trains in Cumberland County over the years. The most recent fatality occurred in December 2023 when a toddler was struck by a Norfolk Southern freight train in South Newton Township. 

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