Groups Fight To Put Safety On Track

Two organizations share one mission, to install warning systems at all of Ohio's railroad crossings 

Akron Beacon Journal 

July 13, 1999 

by: Joy Heselton

COLUMBUS: The flashing lights and gates at a railroad crossing might frustrate folks who don't want to wait for the train. But a Lawrence Township woman wishes they had been in place at the crossing where her son died.

Ryan, the youngest son of Vicky and Dennis Moore, was one of three teens killed when a train struck their car in 1995 at a crossing on the Wayne-Stark county line. Three other teens, including the Moores' older son, were also injured in the accident.

The state has since installed lights and gates at the crossing, but they came eight months late for the Moores.

That is why the Moores established the Angels on Track Foundation with aims to equip all of Ohio's rail crossings with warning signal devices. About half of the state's crossings are marked only with crossbucks and no warning signals.

Her son's untimely death is also the reason Vicky Moore will join Sherry Fox, executive director of the Texas-based organization RailWatch, in speaking tomorrow to a task force in Delaware County about rail safety.

In a state that has historically been in the top 10 nationally for train-related accidents and fatalities, rail safety is a growing concern. And groups like RailWatch and the Angels on Track Foundation, formed in part by train-crash victims and their families, want government and rail companies to do more to prevent train-car collisions, derailments, and train-related hazardous waste spills.

A February report by RailWatch states there is a railroad accident every 90 minutes and a derailment from a train carrying hazardous waste every two weeks.

"Those are real concerns nationwide and they're of particular concern in Ohio because of the rail traffic that you have there, number of railraod tracks around the state and unprotected crossings," Fox said in an interview yesterday. "We really think that we should accelerate the pace by which those crossings receive lights and gates."

Getting warning signals in place faster is just what Vicky Moore and her Angels on Track Foundation have set out to do. By creating task forces in counties, Moore hopes to transfer part of the responsibility for signal installation from the state to the local level.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio identifies and prioritizes those rail crossings that need safety upgrades. In the past year and a half, the commission designated almost 200 crossings for upgrades. This number is normally 50 to 60 per year, said Dick Kimmins, spokesman for the commission.

Once the commission designates a rail crossing for an upgrade, the rail company has one year to install the warning signals. The signals, which cost around $150,000 per crossing, are installed by the rail companies,who are then reimbursed by the commission. The signals are primarily paid for with state and federal funds, Kimmins said, but sometimes the rail company could contribute up to 10 percent of the cost.

Moore believes the process is low, leaving too many crossings unprotected in Ohio.

Kimmins said the commission's safety upgrades over the past 10 years have reduced the number of train-related accidents and fatalities in Ohio by 65-70 percent. In 1998, the number of train-car accidents in Ohio was 136, with 13 fatalities, compared to 418 accidents with 62 fatalities in 1989.

Warning devices do not always prevent accidents, Kimmins said, noting that over 50 percent of accidents in Ohio occur at crossings with lights and gates.

Moore and Fox also believe rail companies hould have to pay to install the warning devices. Under the current system, they are only required to maintain the crossings, but can choose whether to install devices.

"I think it should be the other way around. The railroads should be responsible for the majority of the costs, and we should have a voluntary contribution. They're the ones who have the tracks, own the trains, they're the ones making the money, their tracks go through our communities. Why should we be responsible for paying for the equipment to protect us from their trains?" Moore said.

CSX Transportation and Norfolk-Southern rail companies, two of the largest in Ohio, think differently. They believe they have a fair deal, with the government paying for the bulk of installation cost and the rail companies covering the maintenance costs.

CSX pays up to $2,000 a year per crossing for maintenance, said Gary Wollenhaupt, the company's director of corporate communications.

And Rudy Husband, spokesman for Norfolk-Southern, said although rail safety is a "No. 1 priority for the company", drivers also need to be responsible for their own safety.

"Every incident involving a train and a car could be avoided if the driver of that car exercised the appropriate level of caution," Husband said.


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