Railroad officials fear close encounters with snowmachines, trains

Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- As head of security for the Alaska Railroad, Dan Frerich dreads seeing snowmachine trails near railroad tracks. Even worse are snowmachine tracks between the rails.

Over the past 10 years, Frerich has investigated dozens of collisions and near-collisions between snowmobiles and trains from Seward to Fairbanks.

No one has been killed while riding a snowmachine on the tracks, according to railroad records. But in the past few years, railroad crews have reported at least five close calls, including four in which trains had to make emergency stops to avoid snowmachines, a maneuver that can derail a train.

Last spring, a 27-year-old Anchorage woman riding with her family was badly hurt after her snowmachine got caught on the tracks near downtown Wasilla and she was slammed by a fully loaded coal train.

Vicki Wohlers, who suffered a shattered femur and punctured lung, later told her husband she thought she had more time to get out of train's way. She's lucky to be alive, Frerich said. The train plowed into the woman and her snowmachine and hurled them off the tracks.

''If not for the deep snow (she landed in), she would have been dead,'' he said.

The railroad tries to keep snowmachines away by posting ''no trespassing'' signs and patrolling the tracks. But the same smooth, flat, open expanses that attract moose to rail corridors also are irresistible to some snowmachiners.

''Some people are just willing to accept the risk of being on the track,'' Frerich said.

Some trespassers have little choice. They live in far-flung wilderness areas such as the Chulitna region north of Talkeetna and ride the tracks because there's no other trail around. But there's also no shortage of city riders who buzz from back yard to back yard, often using trails along the tracks.

On a two-hour trip Monday along a 15-mile stretch of track north of Wasilla, Frerich pointed out dozens of interlaced trails paralleling the track. The trip was organized by railroad officials for news media as part of an effort to educate people to not ride on or near the tracks.

In one spot near the Wasilla airport, riders had slipped through a tight spot under a highway overpass, coming within inches of the tracks.

Many people don't realize the train can still hit them because it sticks out several feet on either side of the tracks, Frerich said.

Riders wearing helmets aren't likely to hear the train coming. In one accident in Birchwood years ago, a man told investigators he didn't know the train was behind him until he saw its shadow in front of him, Frerich said.

Those who ride on the tracks can also damage sensitive equipment used to detect overheated wheels and unbalanced loads, Frerich said.

Frerich said he has talked to snowmachine groups and believes most riders are conscientious about staying off the tracks.

Alaska State Snowmobile Association Access chairman Joe Gauna said the railroad creates its own problems because officials won't let people use their right of ways adjacent to the tracks.

''They just say 'No, no, no.' What do they expect snowmachines to do?'' he said.

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