Three people have been hit by trains and killed while walking on the railroad tracks along Old Concord Road in the last two years, but pedestrians frequently use the rail line as a pathway because there are no sidewalks in the area.
The Charlotte Department of Transportation is considering installing sidewalks along sections of Old Concord Road, but the rail companies that control the corridor say they rarely, if ever, allow them in their rights-of-way.
Seeing the blur of Amtrak and freight trains long ago became a routine for children at Back Creek Church Academy, a preschool on Back Creek Church Road, near Old Concord Road.
Deborah Parker recalls a day in March 2010 when she watched her class of 3-year-olds scurry to the inside of the playground fence as soon as they heard the whistle of a train. Minutes later, Parker realized something was wrong when the train stopped and the sound of an approaching ambulance siren grew louder.
"We bowed our heads and said a prayer for whoever was hurt," Parker said. UNC Charlotte student Sean Williams had been killed while he walked along the tracks.
The accidents have become examples of what can happen when a heavily populated community must coexist with a busy train corridor.
Each day, as many as 46 trains, traveling up to 79 mph, pass the front yards of businesses and homes on Old Concord Road, where the track often runs parallel to the pavement. The rails also sweep along the backyards of hundreds of houses in nearby neighborhoods. At one point, the tracks run across the street from Newell Elementary School and a small park.
Stephen Ashley, who has lived in the Faires Farm neighborhood, south of UNC Charlotte, for six years, said he regularly sees people walking along the tracks.
"It's the paths," he said. "They can cut across and go to the next neighborhood. Plus they go to the stores."
The sidewalk leading out of his neighborhood ends where the tracks begin, at the McLean Road railroad crossing. In January, 22-year-old Moses Kainessie was struck and killed by an Amtrak passenger train at that intersection. And in December, 28-year-old Kennard Edward Little was killed on the tracks near Newell Hickory Grove Road.
The North Carolina Railroad Co. owns the corridor running through University City, and its 200-foot right-of-way makes the possibility of sidewalks along the track unlikely. Norfolk Southern Corp. leases the line from NCRC.
According to the N.C. DOT, sections of Old Concord Road are being considered for sidewalks, but the rail company has jurisdiction.
"You've got to get the permission of the railroad to be able to encroach onto their rights," said Doug Sossamon, assistant district engineer for the N.C. DOT Division of Highways.
Charles Hodges, spokesman for NCRC, said he knows of no instances where a sidewalk runs near company track. "You're trying to deter people from walking along the tracks," he said. "Technically, it's trespassing."
Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern., wrote in an email, "generally speaking, we discourage encroachment on our right-of-way so that we can keep it available for possible future expansion of rail service, and we discourage developments that bring people closer to trains or that might encourage people to cross tracks anywhere other than a designated road crossing.
"However," Chapman said, "we are open to considering any proposal put forward to us by the city."
The railroad companies work with Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that focuses on educating the public about train safety. Agency representatives will travel to any community group that invites them and often go door-to-door to pass out brochures on track safety.
One of the tips discusses the danger of listening to music through headphones while near a track. Two of the victims in the university area, Kainessie and Little, appeared to be wearing headphones when they were struck.
According to Paul Worley, director of engineering and safety for the N.C. DOT Rail Division, rail traffic and use is only expected to increase in the area. The N.C. DOT already has planned to begin construction on a second track in 2013.
For Stephen Ashley - father of two children, 8 and 10 - the tracks are off-limits.
"I tell them, 'You want to walk by yourself? Don't ever go across those train tracks. It's dangerous.'"