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Railroad Crossing Lights Keep Flashing, But There's No Train

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The Detroit Free Press has reported of a railroad safety malfunction in Wayne County near the intersection of East Jefferson and Conner.

Cars spill through the crossing at East Jefferson near Conner in Detroit today as malfunctioning crossing lights keep blinking.   (NANCY ANDREWS/Detroit Free Press)

These vehicles keep crossing this railroad-highway intersection as the malfunctioning crossing lights keep blinking.

Why won’t those railroad crossing lights on East Jefferson near Conner stop flashing?

That may be the question in many minds over the past week. The lights keep flashing even though no trains are coming.

As a consequence, drivers were at risk of becoming conditioned to ignore the signal, and with no gate at that crossing they would have no other advance warning of a train’s approach.

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Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern’s police communications center, responding to inquiries from freep.com, said today they will send someone out to repair the crossing.

The Free Press article suggests the crossing warning lights had been malfunctioning for much of the past week. If so, the railroad’s conduct in failing to repair the lights is unconscionable.

Why would the railroad company take so long to fix these malfunctioning safety devices. Motorists rely on properly functioning safety devices to protect and warn them of oncoming trains. Malfunctioning safety devices render similar safety devices useless as motorists are taught that they cannot rely on the flashing lights to warn them of oncoming trains. Motorists are given a false sense of security that a train probably is not approaching even when the lights are flashing.

Railroad companies are responsible making sure their train crossings are safe. That means the crossings have proper sight lines and visibility that allow drivers to see approaching trains, that trees and vegetation are cut back, that railroads do not park trains near the crossing (that would confuse drivers), that signals and gates are working properly, and that train crews sound a warning with the train’s horn or whistle as the train is approaching.

These train-vehicle collisions are a tragic reminder of how dangerous railroad crossings can be. In the last 10 years, there have been more than 30,000 railroad crossing accidents and more than 3,600 train accident deaths.

These train accidents can have many causes, including:

  • Failure of the railroad company to install proper warnings, 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

It takes a skilled team of investigators and experts to identify critical information.

Railroad companies need to do more to prevent these tragic collisions that kill. Unfortunately, some railroad companies attempt to cover up their role in causing these tragedies 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 companies should be held accountable for dangerous railroad crossings that injure and kill. Is there a different set of rules for railroad companies than for everyone else? Railroad companies need to stop putting profits in front safety.

You can learn more about how to protect yourself at railroad crossings by visiting our railroad safety blog or web site.

Learn more and become a fan of Langdon & Emison on Facebook.

1 Comment

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  1. Mike Bryant says:
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    That’s a very comprehensive list. Thanks for the information and insight into a real situation. Amazing that the light was malfunctioning for that long. It would be interesting to see what the black box says happened.