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NS Operation Lifesaver

Fall 2014

Cayela Wimberly and passenger David Jordan
Cayela Wimberly, director grade crossing safety, greets passenger David Jordan, a Peoria, Ill., resident, as he boards the Great Midwest whistle-stop train at Tilton, Ill. The train was one of four Operation Lifesaver tours that NS conducted in the summer.


New director gets busy start on NS grade crossing safety

Cayela Wimberly had barely settled into her job in May as Norfolk Southern’s grade crossing safety director when she boarded an Operation Lifesaver train to promote public awareness of railroad safety. With barely time to unpack, she followed up with three more of the weeklong whistle-stop trips.

By the time she completed the final leg six weeks later, Wimberly had traveled more than 1,500 miles, stopped in 38 cities in nine states, and talked to several hundred people, including local and state government officials, law enforcement officers, emergency responders, business and school leaders, and reporters.

For Wimberly, the outings provided a rapid immersion into her new responsibilities as leader of NS’ three-person grade crossing safety group. While the pace was hectic, Wimberly said she appreciated the opportunity to speak with guests about safety issues that train crews encounter daily. The trips, she said, are an important tool for informing the public about staying safe at highway-rail grade crossings and the dangers of trespassing on railroad property.

“The most rewarding part was when we brought somebody on board, and they’d say, ‘I had no idea that this was a problem,’ ” Wimberly said. “The best part after that was the follow up when they said, ‘Let’s do a project.’ ”

That proved to be the case in Whitfield County, Ga., where officials invested $100,000 to upgrade pavement markings that warn motorists they are approaching a rail crossing. Wimberly had talked with them about the importance of grade-crossing safety on NS’ Peach State whistle-stop train through Georgia.  After their trip, the county repainted markings at 11 crossings where weather, traffic, and construction work had faded the old symbols.

“That pays for the trip itself,” Wimberly said.

A large responsibility

As part of NS’ Safety and Environmental Department, Wimberly, along with grade crossing safety managers Derrick Mason and William Miller, covers a lot of territory. Among other things, her group monitors approximately 30,000 public and private highway-rail grade crossings across the railroad’s 22-state system, evaluating things such as warning devices, the number of vehicles using them, and the proximity of adjacent crossings.

A major focus is identifying potential safety issues and working with local and state officials to gain community support on solutions, including altering or closing crossings.

“The safest crossing is a closed crossing,” she said. “We want to reach as many people as possible to let them know the importance of grade-crossing safety, trespass abatement, and crossing closures.”

That’s where the whistle-stop trains come in. NS partners on the safety trains with Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization that works to prevent collisions, injuries, and fatalities on and around railroad tracks and highway-rail grade crossings. Bill Barringer, who retired earlier this year from the job Wimberly now holds, is chairman of Operation Lifesaver’s board of directors.

This year’s NS whistle-stop trips, operated during June and July, included the Peach State train; the Appalachian train from Cleveland, Tenn., to Lynchburg, Va.; the Keystone train from Harrington, Del., to Latrobe, Pa.; and the Great Midwest whistle-stop from Monroe, Mich., to Jacksonville, Ill. Altogether, more than 1,260 government, business, and community leaders rode on the trains.

Each day, guests boarded two NS-owned 1940s-era Pullman passenger cars powered by two locomotives in a consist that included NS’ Exhibit Car and an NS research car. A camera mounted on the front locomotive streamed live video on monitors in the passenger cars, allowing guests to see the tracks from the engineer’s perspective.

Cayela Wimberly
Cayela Wimberly is pictured on the Great Midwest whistle-stop train. Above her is a monitor screen that streamed live video from a camera mounted on the front of the locomotive, giving passengers an engineer’s perspective of the track ahead

Finding a good career

Wimberly, a 10-year NS employee, was no stranger to Operation Lifesaver trains. Before moving into her current job, she spent three years as administrator of NS’ grade crossing program, serving as a technical liaison between NS’ Engineering Department and local, state, and federal governments. She joined the company as a communications & signals management trainee on the Piedmont Division after receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Southern University. That was followed by a two-year stint in Bellevue, Ohio, overseeing signal maintainers as NS’ lone female C&S supervisor at the time.

“For a long time, I was the only woman out there,” she said. Wimberly then spent three years as a crossing signal engineer in Atlanta. As her career advanced, the Macon, Ga., native earned a master’s degree in management from Georgia Southern.

She had never considered a career in railroading until she met and talked with an NS human resources representative at a Georgia Southern job fair.

“I was really surprised by the career opportunities available for electrical engineers through the railroad,” she said. “I didn’t realize the rail is just one long electrical circuit.”

In her new job, Wimberly continues to find opportunities to use her engineering skills. “Safety has got the 3 E’s – engineering, education, enforcement,” she said. “My engineering background is a definite positive for this job.”

An awesome project

While she had ridden on Operation Lifesaver trains in her previous position, Wimberly had not realized the extent of trespassing on the railroad.

“My past experience was always focused on crossings,” she said. “In this job, we look at crossing and trespassing incidents, and trespassing incidents are significantly higher than crossing incidents. The goal is to get to zero trespassing and zero crossing accidents.”

By the time passengers on this summer’s last whistle-stop train disembarked in Jacksonville, Ill., Wimberly had a greater appreciation of the issues communities face when crossings are altered. She also received an up-close look at progress NS has made in enhancing grade-crossing safety for trains, pedestrians, and motorists.

As Wimberly waited for a safety train to get under way in Monroe, Mich., she chatted with an NS signal maintainer preparing to retire after 40 years with the company. He talked about a project in Monroe that closed several crossings and updated others with new gates, flashers, and cables.

“He told me that this is the best he’d seen this territory in 40 years,” Wimberly said. “He said he almost hated to retire. Engineering, safety, real estate, and transportation joined together to get it done. It was just a great project all the way around, and it had a positive effect on the community as well as our own signal maintainer. The goal is to keep everyone safe, and when we can all work together to accomplish it, that’s awesome.”