By Charlotte Lane
When I was a little girl, few things were as thrilling as standing beside a railroad track while a tall train engine rumbled past. I never lost my love for railroads as I grew older. I did, however, learn the vital importance the rail system played not only in commerce, but in physically binding the nation as one after the Civil War.
Many western movies portray the thrilling race of the three main east-west railroads competing to drive lines from the Mississippi River to the west coast. With steel ties, they fastened us into one geographic unit.
One of the responsibilities of the Public Service Commission that few people know about is regulation of railroads. Our Railroad Safety Section has powerful and wide-ranging duties. They inspect track, cars and locomotives, hazardous materials, signal and train controls, and operating practices.
It’s a big job. And it is ably managed by John Perry. John is a native of the tiny Wyoming County town of Ravencliff. Three decades ago, he started with the Commission as an inspector. Now he commands a staff of 10, and they have a colossal amount of work to do.
The West Virginia rail system is enormous. It comprises two major and 11 regional, or what are known as “short line,” railroads. The PSC has jurisdiction over 2,401 miles of track in the Mountain State. While freight carriage has declined nationally since the turn of the century, rail transport of goods, particularly coal, remains important in our state.
It may be surprising, but more than 1,000 people are killed or injured each year in this country because they are trespassing on railroad tracks. The Federal Railroad Administration reports there were more than three derailments daily in 2022, or a total of 1,154.
Recent derailments of trains near the West Virginia borders and carrying toxic materials point once again to the importance of the duties performed by John and his inspectors. In fact, West Virginia’s railroads are nationally recognized as among the safest in the nation. That is due to our rigorous inspection program and the fact that all of our inspectors are fully certified by the Federal Railroad Administration. Most are also volunteers in Operation Lifesaver.
So, the next time you are stopped by a train, or you hear that mournful whistle as one approaches an intersection, remember the Public Service Commission’s team is working to keep you safe.