With all of the additional railroad crossing safety improvements coming to Kent as it seeks to establish a quiet zone where trains will no longer have to blow their horns through town, it just might reduce the number of pedestrian deaths as well.
Eighteen pedestrians, from 2019 through 2022, were killed in Kent by trains, according to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. That’s more during the four-year period than any other city in the state. Four died in 2022, seven in 2021, three in 2020 and four in 2019. Kent had just one death in 2018.
“Our goal is to have zero injuries or fatalities related to the transportation system, so any loss of life is tragic,” said City Public Works Director Chad Bieren in an email about the 18 deaths in four years.
City staff continues to coordinate with the Federal Railroad Administration, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway and Union Pacific Railroad to assess at-grade street crossings and establish a railroad quiet zone, Bieren said.
“As a result, the city has identified crossing improvements at all of Kent’s 13 at-grade railroad crossings,” Bieren said. “These improvements include updated signs, markings and curbing to help eliminate illegal vehicle and pedestrian crossings that have resulted in fatalities.”
The 13 crossings are between South 259th Street and South 212th Street. Eight are BNSF crossings and five are Union Pacific crossings. The BNSF tracks on the east end of downtown include freight, Amtrak and Sounder (Sound Transit) trains. Union Pacific tracks west of downtown includes only freight trains.
Kent received a $2.95 million grant last legislative session through the state Department of Commerce to make railroad crossing safety improvements for a quiet zone. That work is set to begin this year. City staff hopes the quiet zone can be established in 2025.
The Kent City Council on Jan. 17 approved a $700,125 contract with Texas-based A-1 American Fencing to install fencing to keep trespassers away from the tracks. Fencing will be installed north of James Street and south of Willis Street.
“The city will be installing additional fencing along the BNSF tracks through downtown in an attempt to eliminate trespassing on railroad property, which accounts for the majority of railroad related incidents in Kent,” Bieren said.
The fencing will help force people to the crossing areas, said Toby Hallock, city engineer, in a report to the council’s Public Works Committee. The fencing to be installed along First Avenue and Railroad Avenue are where many people trespass.
Mill Creek neighborhood residents proposed the idea of a quiet zone to the city about a dozen years ago to improve quality of life for people who live and work in the area where the loud horns disrupt sleep and conversations. The council agreed to fund a quiet zone in 2017, but obtaining permits and approvals from Union Pacific, BNSF and the Federal Railroad Administration slowed the process.
Bieren said the state Department of Transportation will need to sign off on improvements at the Willis Street crossing since it is a state highway, State Route 516. That’s expected to slow the project as city staff coordinates with state DOT staff on the improvements.
“We are excited about the Legislature appropriation,” Bieren said. “That’s a big shot in the arm. You’ll see more actions (work) at the crossings. To coordinate 516 with WSDOT on Willis will be the biggest hiccup.”
Rob Brown, city transportation and engineering manager, told the council at its Jan. 17 workshop that the city hopes to establish a quiet zone along the BNSF tracks in the second quarter of 2025 and the Union Pacific tracks in the fourth quarter of 2025. BNSF carries more trains through Kent than Union Pacific, with about 46 trains per day, down from the 64 per day prior to COVID-19, Brown said.
Kent Police are usually the first to respond to collisions between trains and pedestrians.
“We feel for the families of these individuals,” Kent Police Assistant Chief Jarod Kasner said in an email. “Regardless of the circumstances, a loss of life is always difficult for those who loved the deceased.”
Police reports about the incident sometimes indicate the pedestrian crossed the tracks to commit suicide.
“These determinations are made through investigations of the evidence and information made available to the investigators who respond to these incidents,” Kasner said. “We have had incidents in which our officers have observed the collision with the pedestrian and the train. As you can imagine, when that happens, there is a traumatic impact on the officers.”
Kasner said most of the incidents could have been avoided.
“We want to be very respectful to the families of those who lost their lives,” Kasner said. “My comments are not intended to cause them more grief, but the reality is that all of these incidents are entirely avoidable. The reality is that the railroad crossings in Kent are well designed and have the appropriate warning devices.
“If pedestrian (and vehicles) cross the tracks at these locations and comply with the warning signals, there is virtually no risk of them being hit by a train. It is only when people decide to disregard the law and the provided safety systems that allow them to cross the tracks safely, that we see collisions.”
Kasner hopes the safety improvements make a difference.
“This city continues to work with the railroad companies to ensure we have the needed safety features at our crossing point as well as along the tracks,” he said. “There is a misnomer that the city has the authority to regulate the railroad companies who cross through our city. That is not correct. While we do work with them, and they are invested in keeping people safe, the railroad companies are regulated by the federal government.”
That’s why the city has to get so many agencies to sign off on the improvements.
Kent had one grade crossing fatality in 2022 when an Amtrak passenger train struck a pedestrian at the Willis Street crossing Aug. 6, 2022. There were no other grade crossing deaths in the state.
There were 24 trespass fatalities in the state in 2022, including three in Kent, the most of any city. The Kent incidents were Nov. 9, 2022 when a BNSF freight train struck a pedestrian, Oct. 10, 2021 when a BSNF freight train struck a pedestrian and Feb. 17, 2022 when a Sounder commuter train struck a pedestrian.
“The incidents listed under grade crossing indicate fatalities that occurred at a railroad crossing,” according to a state Utilities and Transporation Commission spokesperson. “The incidents listed under trespassing indicate fatalities that occurred at locations along the railroad right-of-way (not at a crossing).”
There were four grade crossing deaths in 2021, including one in Kent when an Union Pacific train struck a pedestrian July 14, 2021 at South 259th Street.
There were 28 trespass fatalities in 2021, including seven in Kent, the most of any city. Auburn had three fatalities. The Kent deaths included two by Union Pacific freight trains, one by an Amtrak train, two by BNSF freight trains, one by a Sounder commuter train and another death on the BNSF tracks, although it was undetermined which train hit the person.
Kent had three trespass fatalities in 2020, the most of any city out of 20 total. Kent had four trespass fatalities in 2019, again the most out any city out of 15 total. Kent had just one trespass facility in 2018.
The state Utilities and Transporation Commission works with cities to improve railroad safety. The commission completed a Rail State Action Plan in 2022, as required by the Federal Railroad Administration. It identified specific crossings at higher risk for accidents and incidents, including seven in Kent.
“UTC staff is in communication with the city of Kent about the city’s plans for crossing improvements at seven higher-risk crossings identified in the Rail State Action Plan,” according to UTC staff. “UTC staff also completed a trespass prevention assessment inspection in Kent in September 2022 and has been in contact with BNSF Railway regarding trespass incidents along the railroad’s mainline track in Kent.”
Call 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline