Signals Get Crossed

Mother whose son died at a railroad crossing wonders why gates and lights warn motorists at abandoned sites, but not at busy ones 

Akron Beacon Journal 

December 3, 1997 

by: Bob Dyer

Vicky Moore spends a lot of time thinking about railroad crossings. You would, too, if your son was killed at one.

The Canal Fulton resident has noticed that some busy railroad crossings don't offer much in the way of gates and lights.

She also has noticed that some crossings with lovely gates and lights don't have any trains.

She believes something is seriously amiss with that picture.

She's right.

The average cost for gates and lights at a single crossing is $120,000.

About half of that involves engineering and labor. Even so, does it make any sense to allow $60,000 of equipment to rust away at an abandoned crossing?

Check out the situation on Southeast Avenue just south of Tallmadge Circle.

As your approach, you see a yellow-and-black railroad-warning sign by the side of the road...then two big, white, freshly painted X's with "RR" on the highway surface...then two huge, electrified warning signals, each with four red lights.

School buses routinely stop at the crossing. State law says they have to.

But not a single train has crossed that street for 15 years.

In fact, during a highway resurfacing project last summer, the tracks were completely paved over.

On nearby Southwest Avenue, the situation is more absurd. Despite fancy warning signals, the tracks no longer exist. They were yanked out during a waterline project.

By contrast, the crossing where 16-year-old Ryan Moore and two other Northwest High School students died in March 1995 did not have any gates or lights.

Moore's brother, Jason, then 18, was driving down a steep, wooded hill on Deerfield Avenue, three miles south of state Route 172 in Baughman Township. Although by all accounts he slowed down and looked both ways, he didn't see the train roaring along at 60 mph.

His mistake was not unique. Five other people had lost their lives at the same crossing.

The state has since erected lights and gates at that crossing--but it took nearly a year for it to happen. The Moore tragedy pushed that particular crossing high on the state's computerized priority list.

"When my son was killed, they must have decided their quota was filled," Vicky Moore says bitterly.

She's not far off. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio uses a formula to determine which crossings should be deemed the most dangerous--and, therefore, the most deserving of additional warning signals.

The waiting list is long. Ohio has 6,500 crossings--and about half have only "crossbucks", those crossed white signs that sit by the side of the road.

Given current levels of funding, only about 80 crossings can be upgraded each year.

According to PUCO records, Summit County alone has 32 active crossings without gates or lights.

All of which begs the obvious question: Why not remove the costly equipment from long-abandoned crossings and put it where it might do some good?

Rob Marvin, chief of the PUCO's Railroad Division, says his commission encourages that practice--unofficially.

"We don't have a formal program, but we're trying to develop one," he says. "We do this sort of thing when we can."

One of the drawbacks, he says, is that in some cases, the equipment on abandoned lines "is 30 to 50 years old and really not capable of being relocated to another track."

Another problem, Marvin says, centers on transportation law.

"Used to be we could put (a line) 'out-of-service'. You didn't have to go through the formal process of 'abandoning' a line."

But today the law says a line is either "active" or "abandoned," nothing in between. For myriad reasons, railroads are loath to formally abandon their lines, even if there is no immediate use for them.

"Technically," Marvin says, "we're supposed to have (the railroad companies) maintain and upkeep all the lights and gates, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So we've allowed railroads to relocate virtually eliminate the grade crossing...

"But there's no specific provision for doing that."

This fuzziness has led not only to wasted equipment, but to a serious secondary problem: the reaction of bus and truck drivers to the leftover signs.

The people who drive school buses, city buses and hazardous materials trucks--such as gasoline tankers--are required to stop completely at every marked railroad crossing. Even if a crossing hasn't been used in decades.

In some situations, the requirement is more than a nuisance; it can actually contribute to accidents.

Such was the case at an unused crossing on U.S. Route 30 south of Wooster. While everybody else was flying along at 55 mph, buses and gasoline trucks were forced to come to a dead stop to honor the virtually nonexistent crossing.

The solution? A little known provision within state law.

"We've only done it once--and we've only had one request," Marvin says. "I don't think a whole lot of people know we have that authority."

The city petitioned the PUCO for erection of "exempt" signs, which indicate to professional drivers that a crossing is exempt from normal rules.

The same thing could be done in Tallmadge or any other place, Marvin says.

"The local highway authority would have to petition for that,"he says.

But, as retired Akron railroad official Tom Jones points out, the treatment of unused crossings needs to be formalized--and the PUCO needs to pick up the pace.

Jones, who retired as assistant general manager of the former Akron-Barberton Belt, objects to the fact that many of the two dozen crossings between Firestone Plant No. 1 and Seiberling Street near the old General Tire complex have been allowed to slide into various stages of disrepair without any formal action.

"They're dragging their feet on this," he says, referring to the PUCO.

Jones says the commission "either needs to get their act together legally or put forth the effort to make the area safe" by erecting exempt signs.

Vicky Moore doesn't much care how this all comes about. She just knows that it needs to happen.

"The signals are already paid for. Why not use them?"


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