Train theft by escaped youth offenders triggers call for better RR security

(The following article by Jim Phillips was posted on the Athens News website on January 18.)

ATHENS, Ohio -- In retrospect, maybe a 250,000-pound diesel locomotive wasn’t the best choice for a getaway vehicle.

That may be what two teenaged boys were thinking after their arrest in Hocking County early Tuesday morning.

The pair, who ran away from the Hocking Valley Community Residential Center in Nelsonville around 8:30 p.m. Monday, were apprehended after they allegedly stole a train - yes, that word was train - and drove it about 12 miles, nearly to Logan, before stopping and giving themselves up.

The incident has already triggered a call by a railroad workers’ union for increased railway security, and a response by a state representative who says he’ll re-introduce a security bill that failed to pass the General Assembly earlier.

In a dangerous gambit that has local law enforcers shaking their heads in disbelief, the pair of boys, aged 16 and 13, commandeered a locomotive from the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway station and took it to a spot near Ohio Rt. 328 in Hocking County.

“When (police) called me up in the middle of the night, they had to explain it to me two or three times,” recalled Athens County Prosecutor C. David Warren. “I kept thinking this was the kind of train that runs around a Christmas tree.”

The older boy is from Lawrence County, and the younger boy from neighboring Scioto County. The HVSR, which offers scenic railway tours, is currently shut down for the winter and won’t reopen until April.

The young men reportedly took advantage of the disruption caused earlier Monday night, when two other juvenile males ran away from HVCRC, to make their own escape. (All four escapees have been captured.)

The two alleged train thieves reportedly hid out for a few hours, then broke into the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway station in Nelsonville by prying open a door, started up a train and took off.

The older boy, who reportedly comes from a railroading family and has extensive experience with trains, was able to go through the complex steps for starting up a diesel locomotive, move cars around on the tracks, and uncouple the cars from the engine before taking off, authorities say. He even knew to blow the whistle at every crossing.

The 16-year-old “was very familiar with trains,” according to Nelsonville Police Ptl. John Meeks, who helped capture the boys. “He could tell you just about anything you wanted to know about running them.”

The youth needed all that expertise, apparently. According to Sgt. Ryan Gabriel of the Hocking County Sheriff’s office, the teen told arresting officers that he had first headed southeast toward Athens, but found that the tracks dead-end near Hocking College.

The boys reversed the locomotive and headed back to Nelsonville, where they reportedly uncoupled cars from the engine, moved them out of the way, switched to an open track and took off again in just the locomotive, this time toward Logan.

Around 1:15 a.m. Meeks, and officers from the Hocking College Police, spotted the train heading west near the Ohio Rt. 278 crossing, and realized it should not be running.

An HC officer went after the train in a cruiser, while Meeks visited the train yard and found it had been broken into. Officers contacted a HVSR volunteer, who confirmed that the locomotive should not have been out.

At first, apparently, officers who saw the train in Hocking County didn’t realize it was being driven by runaways. And even after they found out, Gabriel said, there wasn’t a whole lot they could do to stop it. An officer tried to flag the train down at a crossing, but it didn’t stop.

“Unless you’ve got a tank, I don’t know how you stop a train,” he observed.

Police kept after the escapees, however, and the hijackers “saw cruisers at just about every intersection they went through,” said Meeks. Fortunately, the two boys decided on their own to shut down their flight just short of the Ohio Rt. 328 exit of U.S. Rt. 33 in Hocking County.

Sheriff’s deputies got a call that the train was stopped behind the new Save-A-Lot building at that location, and when Sgt. Eric Matheny approached it, the boys came out and Matheny handcuffed them.

Though the escapade ended without any serious mishap, it could potentially have been much worse. Gabriel noted that in Hocking County, the HVSR tracks are used on an infrequent but regular basis by commercial trains, hauling supplies for three local industrial sites.

“When you get close to Logan, there’s still a line that comes out of Columbus,” he noted. “Two to three times a week, there’s a small train.” A train from the Indiana & Ohio line reportedly was scheduled to arrive in Logan at 3 a.m. that day.

Gabriel said that had the boys gotten to the Logan station, they probably would have found their way blocked by parked train cars. Preparations had also reportedly been made to possibly derail the runaways if needed.

But had they somehow made it through Logan, the officer added, “they could have made it all the way to Columbus” - assuming they didn’t hit some other train head-on.

As things turned out, a tree limb or some other sort of rubble on the tracks, not official intervention, may have been what averted a catastrophe.

Gabriel said that according to the sheriff’s report on the incident (he didn’t take part in the pursuit himself), the older boy told officers that he decided to stop the locomotive to avoid hitting something on the track.

“There was debris on the tracks,” the officer said. “Basically, he said he was afraid something would happen to make him wreck.”

Though the episode has its remarkable aspects, Prosecutor Warren noted that it spells some major legal problems for the two boys.

“This is serious business,” he stressed. Though any charge against a juvenile is officially one of delinquency, the underlying felony charges that would apply to an adult in this case include escape, second-degree felony grand theft (over $500,000) and breaking-and-entering, not to mention any charges relating to endangering the public, Warren said.

The two boys will be referred to the juvenile courts in their home counties.

On Wednesday, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen issued a news release saying the train theft points up the need for better railroad security.

“If you can’t secure a potential weapon of mass destruction from kids, how could we ever think our rail networks are safe from terrorist acts?” asked BLET lobbyist Timothy R. Hanely, quoted in the release.

The same day, Ohio state Rep. Bob Hagen issued a release promising that “in light of this incident,” he plans to re-introduce the former Senate Bill 363, the “Rail Safety and Security Act,” in the Ohio House this week. The bill would require rail owners and operators to secure their facilities from the threat of terror stricks, and would provide for state oversight.

Friday, January 19, 2007

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