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Calls for railroad safety after Gervais boys death

A 13-year old boy’s death has sparked discussion of train safety in Gervais.

Diego Rodriguez and a 14-year-old friend were walking on the tracks north of Gervais Oct. 15 when he was struck and killed by an Amtrak train carrying 65 passengers.

The train conductor had seen only a shadow before slamming on the emergency brake and Diego and his friend thought the train was travelling on an adjacent track.

“We came a hair’s breadth from losing two that night,” said Peter Spirup, chief of Gervais Police Department, at last week’s city council meeting. “The other (boy) was barely off the track.”

Despite being illegal, walking the tracks from Gervais to Woodburn is common among local youth, cutting a three-mile journey along Highway 99E down to one mile.

Criminal trespassing on railroad right of way is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, Spirup said.

“We hear a lot of people saying, ‘We didn’t know that,’” Spirup said. “Mostly, it’s a lot of kids we find walking on the tracks.”

The city has been enforcing the law over the last 18 months, giving warnings, Spirup said. A couple of violators have been charged, he said.

Union Pacific, which owns the railroad right of way, will provide 11 signs notifying pedestrians about the state law, Spirup said.

Police officials, working with the Oregon chapter of a national railroad safety organization called Operation Life Saver, also will speak to students on railroad safety at Gervais Middle School and Gervais High School before the Christmas holidays, he said.

“It will be a pretty clear message – don’t walk on the tracks,” Spirup said.

Diego’s death was a tragic reminder of the need for railroad safety, said Mayor Shanti Platt.

“This was my greatest fear,” she said. “I was so sorry to see this happen.”

Platt is working with several organizations, including the city of Woodburn, to discuss fencing around the tracks. There have been discussions about creating a pedestrian pathway outside of the right of way.

The costs of building the pedestrian pathway and fence could be up to $500,000, said Sam Sasaki, city administrator. There could be grants available for doing the project, which Sasaki called a “high priority.”

Meanwhile, an earlier sidewalk and bridge overcrossing project allowing pedestrians to safely cross the railroad tracks at Ivy Street has now been given the notice to proceed, Sasaki said.

The project, which was made possible by a $304,000 grant from Oregon Department of Transportation, had stalled over the summer as the city waited for ODOT to give the go-ahead on the grant.

Sasaki expects the sidewalk, which will give students a safe passage on their way to the consolidated Gervais School District campus, to be completed by spring.