Tom Wilcox was stuck behind a stalled train near Hamilton Middle School on Tuesday afternoon when he saw about a dozen students crawl under the boxcars or climb across the train couplings to continue their walk home.
“Kids are going to get killed. They keep running underneath and across,” Wilcox posted on Facebook, along with a video he shot from his vehicle on Market Street.
“We have been stuck behind this train since 3:13 p.m. — still here at 3:50.”
No one was injured. But Wilcox’s post — which he later removed from Facebook — prompted school officials to issue a warning about the dangers of walking under or through trains stopped at intersections.
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Justin Kasel, principal at Hamilton Middle School, 1407 S. Broadway, said trains traveling just north of the school sometimes tie up traffic on Broadway, Main, Market and other major north-south streets.
“It can be stuck there between five and even over 60 minutes,” Kasel said.
More than two-thirds of Hamilton’s 600 students don’t qualify for a bus, so they either walk or get rides to school.
On Tuesday, Kasel said, stalled trains blocked several intersections both before and after school, causing delays for students, teachers, parents and buses. At least 150 students were about a half-hour late for school, which starts at 8 a.m., he said.
“Folks coming on those one-way streets — Main or Market or Topeka — get locked in, and they can’t turn around,” Kasel said.
“I’ll get texts from teachers saying, ‘Hey, I’m stuck at the train,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, here we go.’ . . . We just kind of have to scramble.”
Far more worrisome, though, is children crawling through or underneath stalled trains to get to school or home and getting hurt or killed, Kasel said.
Wilcox, a site coordinator for the Gear Up program at Hamilton, said he and several other motorists tried shouting to the students not to cross the tracks Tuesday, but several did anyway.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “The train would move back and forth all of a sudden, and one of those couplings could crush a kid. . . . That could have been a tragedy.”
Wilcox said Wichita police responded to calls from motorists and directed several children away from the train.
During lunch at the school Wednesday, Kasel held impromptu “mini-assemblies” to warn students about the dangers of crossing railroad tracks. He said he also planned to send a notice to parents via the district’s automated ParentLink service.
“I don’t think our kids were trying to be malicious at all. It was cold and rainy, and I think they were just trying to get home,” he said.
“We talked about never trying to crawl under a train and never trying to get through two cars because you never know when it’s going to start moving again.”
A Kansas law says railroads can block a crossing for only 10 minutes at a time. After that, the engineer must either move the train or uncouple enough cars to create a gap for car traffic to pass through.
But that law is being challenged by a lawsuit from BNSF Railroad, which argued before the Kansas Court of Appeals last month that only the federal government — not states — can regulate interstate train traffic.
Officials said the tracks and crossing near Hamilton Middle School belong to Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad. It’s unclear what caused the hour-long delay Tuesday afternoon, and a call to the company was not returned Wednesday.
Terri Moses, director of safety and security for Wichita schools, said the district has “never had any major issues” with trains near schools and that Tuesday’s hour-long delay was “kind of an anomaly.”
But she urged families and school officials to talk to children about the potential dangers of crossing stalled trains.
“If you can’t get home, then you certainly can come back to the school,” she said. “But taking drastic measures to get home like crawling through or around trains is not appropriate.”