Deaths along railroad tracks on rise

An iPod and earbuds were found near the body of Matthew Gordon-Hernandez. The 15-year-old was hit by a train Dec. 17 while walking on railroad tracks near his Elk Grove home.

The engineer reportedly sounded the horn and applied the brakes, but the train couldn't stop in time. The incident is still under investigation.

Rail fatalities associated with people walking on or alongside the tracks are on the rise in the United States, safety officials said.

"These types of events constitute the leading cause of rail deaths," said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

A 58-year-old woman died Christmas Day in Nevada County after she and her adult son were hit by a Union Pacific train in Soda Springs. The pair had been walking along one of two sets of parallel tracks when witnesses said at least one of them appeared to fall onto the tracks bearing the UP train. Authorities have not identified the two or disclosed the extent of injuries suffered by the son.

Railroad tracks and property around them are considered private, and trespassing is prohibited, said Pete Aadland, state coordinator for California Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit rail safety organization.

About 500 deaths result every year from people trespassing on railroad property, according to the railroad administration. Those who die are most often pedestrians taking a shortcut across or alongside railroad tracks or people hunting, bicycling or riding all-terrain vehicles near the tracks.

"The bottom line is, the only safe place to cross railroad tracks is where it's legal to do that at designated crossings," Aadland said.

California leads the nation in these train-related trespassing deaths, Flatau said.

In part, authorities blame urbanization, which has meant more people now live in areas where trains once rattled down rural railroad tracks.

From January through September of this year, 46 people in the state died after trespassing onto property around railroad tracks, according to Federal Railroad Administration reports.

There are fewer deaths and injuries at designated railroad crossings, where pedestrians are encouraged to cross. From January through September of this year, 20 such deaths were recorded in the state.

Four deaths in Merced County

There were three deaths in Merced County from January through September of this year, according to FRA statistics. At least one more train-related death has occurred in Merced since that reporting period. There were no deaths in Stanislaus County and two in San Joaquin counties during the same time period.