Amtrak is tapping into the rail fan community to help keep the nation’s passenger railroad safe.
Through a new program dubbed Partners for Amtrak Safety and Security being launched Tuesday, Amtrak will recruit people who are already watching and riding trains to keep an eye out for suspicious activity on trains and around stations and tracks.
Passengers and rail fans can register online to participate in the “neighborhood watch style program.” They’ll be issued membership cards and learn more about what safety and security concerns they should look out for and how to report them.
Rail fans — or “railfans” as they call themselves — are the ideal candidates for the program, Amtrak Police Chief John O’Connor said Monday. They’re already out watching trains and tracks across the country every day and will notice if something is amiss.
“They know sometimes better than our employees,” he said. “They know engine numbers and car numbers and time tables. They know better than the fisherman knows the tides.”
The program grew out of a forum with Amtrak executives organized by Trains magazine last year. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, people who watched and photographed rail operations were sometimes viewed with suspicion and that led to tension between rail fans and railroads.
The forum was meant to help foster dialogue between rail fans and Amtrak, according to Trains Associate Editor Andy Cummings. Amtrak officials were impressed with the enthusiasm they saw and decided to create a program like this, O’Connor said.
Rail fans will sign up for PASS because they want formalize their relationship with the railroad, Cummings said.
“People want to feel connected to the railroad in some way,” he said. “Up to now, the railfans’ role and connection has been ambiguous. Generally, there have been some suspicions about what their motives are.”
Amtrak’s new initiative is based on Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s Citizens for Rail Security program, which launched in 2006, O’Conner said.
BNSF’s security team recognized the value of supplementing the vigilance of railroad’s 38,000 employees with the large, passionate group of train enthusiasts, according to BNSF spokesman Steve Forsberg.
“We saw the railfans as potential allies,” he said. “They have a shared interest with the railroad.”
Since the program began, the more than 10,000 members CRS members have reported everything from potential suicides, trespassers, lost children, suspicious activity and stolen equipment, Forsberg said.
Steve Glischinski, a correspondent for Trains based in St. Paul, Minn., joined BNSF’s program because he wanted to help and he has found staff to be very responsive when he reported broken gates at crossings and spotting a person on a gondola.
“We like the railroad. Instead of them hassling us about being near the railroad, they were saying, ‘No, you can be our eyes and ears,'” he said.
Glischinski has traveled around the country to photograph trains in action, getting to know how the rail systems work in the process.
“You can tell when something isn’t right or if someone is where they aren’t supposed to be,” he said.
Amtrak’s new initiative will help get past the antagonistic relationship between railroad and rail fans and take advantage of a valuable asset, Glischinski said.
“The good news is that they are recognizing that we can help them, not hurt them,” he said. “I hope other railroads follow suit.”