PORTLAND, Maine -- A lazy afternoon of fishing from a railroad trestle turned frantic when a locomotive came around the corner.
"Train!" yelled fifth-grader Nathan Chheng, and he and the three adults with him took off running. Nathan stumbled, however, and got struck, dying on the tracks.
The 11-year-old was one of hundreds of trespassers who are killed on the nation's 233,000 miles of track each year. It's a toll that has generally risen over past quarter-century, even as the number of deaths from crashes with vehicles at railroad crossings has plunged.
There's no single reason for the upward trend, authorities say. Railroad and safety officials say the growing popularity of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles could be part of the problem, and so could increased residential and commercial development along railroad lines.
Trains are also quieter than ever, their traditional clicketyclack mostly eliminated by welded track. And people used to slow-moving trains can be surprised when a fast one comes along.
Train engineers regularly see people using railroad property to ride ATVs and snowmobiles, to walk and jog, to swim and fish from trestles, said Amtrak engineer Erik Young, whose 130-ton locomotive approaches 79 mph on the Downeaster passenger run between Portland and Boston.
Last winter, Young hit an ATV that had been left on the side of the tracks, and he once found himself behind a snowmobiler who was barreling down the middle of the tracks in a rail yard.
"Trains can be there at any time at any speed. I don't know why people take chances with their lives," Young said.
Until 1997, most train fatalities resulted from vehicle-train collisions at railroad crossings. Crossing deaths fell by more than 50 percent between 1981 and last year, from 728 to 355, according to Operation Lifesaver, an Alexandria, Va.-based railroad education group established in 1972 to promote safety at railroad crossings and on rights of way.
On the other hand, the annual number of trespass fatalities ranged from about 380 to 450 in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the past 15 years, that figure had typically topped 500, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics.
The decline in crossing fatalities is credited to extensive educational outreach programs and better crossing gates and signs.
To address trespass deaths, railroads and safety organizations say they are posting more no-trespassing signs, meeting with schools and others to promote safety and pushing for legislation that increases penalties for railroad trespassers.
Nathan and his chaperones had walked past a no-trespassing sign to go out on the bridge in the town of Warren on April 23.
The Maine Eastern Railroad maintenance train was traveling 25 mph when it approached, pulling six empty hopper cars. Besides killing Nathan, it struck one of the adults, sending him over the trestle and leaving him critically injured.
"The message we're trying to get through is railroads are private property, and people have no business being out there," said Jonathan Shute, general manager of Maine Eastern Railroad.