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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
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Railroad Crossing Crashes Highlight Need For Better Train Safety

4 comments

Railroad crossing accidents continue to cause injuries and deathsIn the last 10 years, there have been more than 29,000 railroad crossing collisions resulting in more than 10,000 injuries and more than 3,500 deaths. Train accidents and, specifically, railroad crossing accidents, can have devastating effects on motor vehicles. When a train hits another vehicle — a car, truck or SUV — the results are catastrophic. Often, these accidents and deaths could have been prevented. Railroad companies know about these dangers, but often do little to prevent collisions. Instead, railroad companies refuse to upgrade safety devices (like crossing gates and warning lights) unless state or local governments pay for them. Railroad companies want cash-strapped local governments to give them a "bailout" for safety improvements.

There have been several train crashes across the country in just the last few days:

  • Elliott City, Maryland — a 28-year-old man died this weekend when he was hit by a train [Larry Carson at The Baltimore Sun]
  • Oldsmar, Florida — four people were injured when a freight train crashed into a car on Sunday Night [Chad Cookler at ABC Action News]
  • Taylor, Michigan — a girl remains hospitalized after he uncle’s vehicle was struck by a train [Catherine Jun at The Detroit News]
  • Norborne, Missouri — a 19-year-old woman was lucky to be alive after a speeding train crashed into the front end of her vehicle at a railroad crossing without lights or gates [Eric Adler at The Kansas City Star]
  • Manteca, California — a young woman was killed over the weekend when she was struck by a Union Pacific freight train [Glenn Kahl at the Manteca Bulletin]
  • Newberry County, South Carolina — a Midlands man was luckily uninjured when when his vehicle was struck by a train Sunday morning [WISTV.com]

It is important for motorist to be aware of railroad crossing dangers. Everyone should be cautious when approaching a railroad crossing. Because it is difficult for trains to stop, the railroad company and train crew are required to properly warn motorists of an approaching train. Sometimes, a vehicle’s driver can do everything right, but is not given a proper warning. This appears to be the case in the Norborne, Missouri train accident.

According to the Kansas City Star’s report, the driver approached the unguarded railroad crossing and brought her vehicle to a stop. The driver looked both ways to see if a train was approaching, but the setting sun obscured her view of the approaching train. As the driver inched forward, the "BNSF Railway train smashed her car…."

Congress passed legislation in 2008 that requires the FRA to make efforts to improve safety. In response, the Agency announced rules last July that require the 10 states with the most crossing accidents or collisions to develop safety plans. The 10 states have one year to make the plans and five years to implement them.

While I applaud the FRA for doing more to increase safety, I wonder why the Agency is attacking cash strapped state governments rather than railroads who actual own and operate the tracks. Railroad tracks are the privately owned property of giant railroad corporations — companies run by corporate giants like Warren Buffett and make billions of dollars in profits every year. Why are states being forced to make safety improvements for these giant, profitable railroads? Is this some sort of railroad industry bailout?

Railroads often refuse to install safety devices (such as lights and gates at crossings) without getting funding from the federal or state government. Why? Why don’t railroad companies do more to make sure their railroad tracks and crossings are safe?

Fox 4 News in Kansas City featured an in-depth story about one small town’s battle to have warning lights and a crossing gate installed. The Union Pacific Railroad refused to install the warning devices without state or local government money. The small Missouri town simply could not afford the cost.

Railroad collisions have many causes — most of which have everything to do with the railroad and nothing to do with state or local governments.

  • Failure of railroad company to install proper warning devices, such as lights, alarms (crossing bells) or a functioning crossing gate

  • Defective warnings — inoperable lights, bells or gates

  • Improper sight lines that prevent a vehicle’s driver from seeing an oncoming train until it is too late

  • Failure to properly maintain the crossing — such as allowing overgrown trees, vegetation and other foliage to obstruct or hide an oncoming train

  • Improperly parking a train at or near a crossing — this not only hides an oncoming train from view, but gives motorists a false sense of safety in seeing a parked train at the crossing

  • Failure to sound the train’s horn or whistle at or near the crossing

  • Other negligence that may appear on the train’s data recorder or video recorder

Some railroad companies even try to cover up their role in causing these collisions rather than implement safety improvements to prevent them.

In October, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad was hit with a $4 million penalty — on top of a $21.6 million jury verdict — because of its "staggering" pattern of misconduct that included destroying evidence in an attempted cover-up of its role in the deaths of four young people who were killed at one of its railroad crossings.

The Court found that BNSF destroyed some evidence, fabricated other evidence, interfered with the investigation and purposefully lied and advanced misleading facts in order to conceal the truth.

Railroad crossing collisions keep happening. Railroad companies need to stop putting profits in front safety. We don’t need a railroad safety bailout when these companies have the resources to make their own tracks safe.

[More information on Train Safety]

(c) Copyright 2010 Brett A. Emison

4 Comments

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  1. John Holt says:
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    The facts, as you present them, can be misleading. California has a very high percentage of public crossings protected by lights and gates. Still, time after time we read about people driving around gates, stopping on the tracks for a traffic signal – in spite of signs warning not to do so – and doing other foolish things. You do not acknowledge that accidents such as these occur frequently, even with proper crossing warning systems. This suggests a bias rather than factual concern over a problem. John Holt

  2. Brett Emison says:
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    John – Thank you for reading. I appreciate your comments but respectfully disagree.

    You claim that “accidents such as these occur frequently, even with proper crossing warning systems.” Where is that statistic? Certainly, motorists must be cautious when approaching a railroad crossing, which is why I wrote above: “It is important for motorist to be aware of railroad crossing dangers. Everyone should be cautious when approaching a railroad crossing.”

    Acknowledging there are possible exceptions, the vast majority of people do not need to be told that one should not drive around a lowered crossing arm in an attempt to beat a train. However, most railroad crossing crashes simply do not occur this way.

    Rather, railroad crossing accidents that come across my desk involve (1) poor line of sight at unguarded or poorly guarded railroad crossings; (2) malfunctioning lights or gates; and/or (3) failure of the train crew to signal the train’s approach by sounding the horn.

    You also suggest I suffer from a “bias” and lack of factual concern over “a problem”. That, also, is not true. My concern is for safety and who is best suited to protect against the danger. Here, it is the railroad companies who build the tracks, run the trains and make billions of dollars in profits. Railroad companies have the technology, resources and ability to properly design and guard their crossings so that motorists are not put at risk by the railroad company’s trains.

    Thanks again for reading. I hope you continue to check back from time to time.

  3. Gene Cranston says:
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    I agree with John Holt. I have observed two crossings in California with flashers (very bright 12″ LED flasher units) and gates for over 15 years. There are virtually no switching moves at one and none at he other, just through moves at ten to twenty MPH. Because of the problem, most trains approach prepared to stop. Local drivers drive around gates with trains approaching as close as 50 feet and In one case knocked down the gate as the train was approaching. Fortunately the train was able to stop.
    Visibility is good, and none of the other of your other listed reasons apply. Your animousity suggests a lawyer with minimal knowledge looking for business. Just because a railroad is opperated by a corporations does not indicate wrong doing. Like government The integrity is in the representative you are fortunate or unfortunate to deal with. Case law has determined that if a railroad improves a crossing without being forced to, it is legal evidence of an unsafe crossing. For that reason a railroad I worked for had representative who tried to get the cities and counties to requie improvments in crossings.
    There are no statistics as there is no report for a near miss and accicent reports are not broken down to provide the statists you rightly you say do not exist that would indicate the acicdents caused by drivers.
    I only know of only two crossing acidents caused by railroad error in the thrity years or so I have been an observer.

  4. Brett Emison says:
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    Gene,

    I appreciate your comments and perspective on the danger of railroad crossings. Certainly you are entitled to you opinion, but some of your observations are simply not correct:

    (1) You suggest that I am “a lawyer with minimal knowledge looking for business.” This personal attack betrays your true motive and has no place in this discussion of safety issues. Sir, you do not know me and your suggestion is not correct. If tables were turned, I could suggest that you are simply a railroad insider who turns a blind eye to safety to make sure shipments get through and your company makes money. I do not know you, sir, and would not suggest that. Let’s stick with the issues and not distract from our discussion with personal attacks.

    (2) It appears you base your comment on two crossings in California with LED flashers. My comments apply to many thousands of crossings across the country — many (if not most) of which are guarded only by cross-bucks.

    (3) You want to change the focus to poor drivers who disregard the warning signs. You will not see me (nor likely anyone else) suggest it is ok to drive around a lowered crossing gate. However, the fact is that most drivers follow the law and obey the signals. The problems arise primarily when the signals are improper, malfunction or when sight distance limitations make the signals misleading.

    (4)You suggest case places liability on a railroad for improving a crossing. In fact, the opposite is correct. In virtually all jurisdictions, evidence of “post-remedial measures” (that is fixing a problem after an accident) is not permitted. The goal of the law is to improve safety. If companies were punished for fixing the problem, there is a chance they would not fix it.

    The fact is that railroads do not improve crossing safety because it takes away from the bottom line and want a safety “bailout” from federal, state and local governments.

    I do appreciate and encourage your comments. I hope you check back from time to time.