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PEPER COLUMN: Engineer teaches safety on the rails

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He’s been working on the railroad for 16 years. First as a conductor, now as an engineer. His job every day is to take a freight train from Charleston to Columbia. He spends the night then returns with another train along the same tracks to the Lowcountry the next day.

This Norfolk-Southern train ride is often a clickety-clackety rumble through mostly rural areas of the state, and there’s a certain sameness to the journey for Jeff Smith. Leaving the rail yard in North Charleston, he’ll soon roll through Reevesville, Branchville and St. Matthews. The route doesn’t vary; the train just follows the tracks.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to forget a place where something bad happened because he passes that spot every day.

Smith’s “bad spot” is near Ridgeville. It’s there that his train hit and killed a man years ago, a man who intentionally walked into the train’s path. Smith knows he didn’t do anything wrong, but the memory of that moment lingers every time his freight train rolls through that crossing.

There are memories as well of collisions that almost happened. Four years ago, a truck with a man and a little boy inside sat on the tracks as he approached Roseville, just before Orangeburg.

They appeared to be watching combines working in a soybean field. Smith repeatedly blew the horn. He rang the bell and rang it and rang it, but the truck didn’t move. He could see the young boy’s face getting closer and closer from his engineer’s perch. The train would have T-boned the truck, but it pulled forward at the last second and the train missed it by inches.

It takes almost a mile to stop a freight train. The momentum, tonnage and number of cars all factor into the equation. A train is 4,000 times heavier than a car. When a train strikes a car, it’s comparable to a car crushing a can.

Across the country, railroad statistics cite that a person or vehicle is hit by a train almost every three hours.

In the most recent collision in this area, a man tried to drive his truck across the tracks near St. George, where he was struck and killed. Every such story reminds Smith of things that have happened and nearly happened when he was at the controls. The pain and suffering of a tragedy does not just belong to the grieving family members.

More than 15 years ago, Smith decided to join a program called Operation Life Saver. It’s a nationwide initiative whose mission is to end collisions, deaths and injuries from railroad-related accidents.

He’s a volunteer who speaks to schools, civic clubs and churches. His employer allows him to take time off when he makes these presentations. Sometimes, a video will be shown to driver’s ed students. He believes the earlier, the better, to raise rail safety awareness.

Smith continually tells himself he wasn’t at fault almost two decades ago outside Orangeburg. But what happened that day still lives with him after he saw nothing but a man’s shoes remaining on those tracks.

Those memories don’t fade easily. Cars and people never win these accidental encounters. There are no detours this engineer can take to bypass this intersection or remove it from his memory bank. Though Smith did nothing wrong that day, educating others about rail safety is an effort on his part to do something right.

Reach Warren Peper at