NAMPA — Two locomotive engines coupled back-to-back rumble through Nampa at about 10 mph. The horn blasts as they approach an intersection. Three passenger vehicles — one right after the other — ignore the warning and casually roll across the track.
But this isn’t a typical freight-hauling trip — these engines aren’t pulling a long line of railroad cars, and they’re carrying an extra crew member: Idaho State Police Trooper Ryan Hoxie.
Hoxie radios to his fellow troopers lying in wait at each intersection as the locomotives approach, describing the make, model and color of the offending vehicles.
“Did your guys get any of those three?” Idaho Operation Lifesaver coordinator Travis Campbell asks Hoxie over the sound of the train after the engine clears the intersection.
“Yeah, they got two of them stopped,” Hoxie replies.
Those drivers were among dozens stopped Thursday during the “Trooper on a Train” operation, a partnership among the Idaho State Police, Union Pacific Railroad and Operation Lifesaver to highlight the importance of yielding to oncoming trains.
Some got let off with a warning. Others got cited on an infraction and fined $90.
It’s an important lesson, Idaho State Police Senior Trooper Curt Sproat said. Last year, he said, there were 20 collisions between trains and passenger vehicles statewide. Two resulted in fatalities.
Campbell, who worked as a locomotive engineer for 12 years before heading Operation Lifesaver, said close calls are frighteningly common. Every time he sat in the engineer’s seat, he said, he’d see cars pass dangerously close to the front of his engine.
And if disaster is imminent, there’s often nothing the engineer can do. It can take a mile or more for a train to come to a complete stop. Sometimes, Campbell said, the train crew can only watch helplessly as something horrible happens right before their eyes.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about this program,” he said. “Idaho Operation Lifesaver’s goal is to reduce the number of crossing incidents to zero. That’s the number we have as our goal. I know first-hand what it’s like to have people out in front of the train, and there’s nothing we can do to stop.”
And it’s not just railroad crossing violators they’re looking for — they also have their eyes peeled for trespassers, as three women out for an afternoon stroll discovered when Campbell and Hoxie disembarked to give them a gentle reminder.
Along the tracks, Campbell said, is not a safe place for pedestrians to be.
“You can be trespassed for that,” he said.