"Collision Course"
For area drivers, railroad crossings are accidents waiting to happen

Cleveland Freetimes 


by: Eric Resnick

Every 90 minutes, there is an accident involving a train in the United States. Most freight trains carry hazardous materials, and trucks carrying hazardous substances cross railroad tracks in every population center every day.

Ohio is the state with the densest population per square miles to railroad miles. Ohio's rail lines carry more traffic than those of 46 other states, ranking Ohio fourth in the nation. Ohio leads the nation in the number of grade crossings with neither lights nor gates, known as "passive" crossings.

Speaking about safety at railroad grade crossings, Thomas M. O'Leary, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission told The Akron Beacon Journal it is "one of the most snarled bureaucratic briars in existence." It is a topic usually only discussed around major accidents and fear of increased traffic. But most people don't realize that tax dollars are funding this bureaucracy, which uses an antiquated system of unreliable signals--where there are signals-- and is endangering every motorist in every community with rail traffic.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which shares the responsibility for rail safety with the ORDC, is pleased with its published statistics showing reductions in both the number of crashes and fatalities, by 22 percent and 52 percent respectively, from 1997 to 1998. However, the percentage of the crashes occurring at "active" crossings with lights and/or gates remained at 45 percent. The percentage of crashes at active crossings that were fatal climbed from 45 percent in 1997 to 54 percent in 1998.

"Our present system of lights and gates isn't dropping those percentages at all," notes Paul Spatero of Canton, who retired as a PUCO rail inspector in July.

Although new rail corridors are not a priority in Ohio, increased rail traffic due to the acquisition of Conrail by CSX Transportation and Norfolk-Southern last year has safety advocates concerned.

Lawrence Landskroner, a Cleveland attorney who represents victims of rail accidents, denounced the increased rail traffic resulting from the merger saying, "the city sold out to the railroad industry."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, however, was pleased with the "unprecedented" agreement struck between the railroads, the state of Ohio, the involved municipalities and his office. He represents the West Side of Cleveland and the surrounding suburbs which will be greatly impacted by an increase in rail traffic. Originally, Norfolk Southern informed the western suburbs that they would see a tripling of train traffic on the single line that traverses Lakewood, Westlake, Rocky River and Bay Village.

Lakewood, which has more at-grade crossings per mile than any city in the country, was concerned that additional train traffic would disrupt all north-south traffic in the city, inhibiting emergency vehicles as well as lowering property values. "People were concerned with quality-of-life in their community as well as safety," said Denis Dunn, executive assistant for community relations to the mayor in Lakewood.

After months of negotiations, a deal involving both public and private funding was worked out that will result in major infrastructure improvements so the additional train traffic can be diverted south through an old Norfolk Southern transfer station called Cloggsville. Berea, which is also in Kucinich's district, will absorb the bulk of the increased traffic, but will also get underpasses and overpasses so that crossing safety will not be an issue. (The lines running through the East Side of Cleveland are almost completely "grade separated, " so that crossing safety is not an issue there either.)

Eventually, the number of trains on the West Shore line will be reduced to pre-merger levels or about 14 trains per day. But in the interim while the infrastructure is built, traffic may as much as double, increasing the possibility of crossing accidents. The most recent accident in Lakewood occurred just a few weeks ago.

Who's Who hopping through the briar

"One of our highest priorities is to increase safety at grade crossings," said O'Leary in the ORDC newsletter, On Track. But within the Ohio Department of Transportation, ORDC serves business interests first and public safety second. ORDC boasts an "aggressive campaign to help Ohio's economy through rail projects" such as loans and grants to build spurs around plants, the promotion of recreational rail travel and the remodeling of train stations. Admitting that federal laws are "one of my shortest suits," O'Leary said, "I don't come from the highway side, I come from the development side."

Yet, ORDC acts as the fiscal agent responsible for the distribution of funds spent on crossing safety coming from the Federal Highway Administration and Ohio treasury. ORDC also decides which new safety devices will be approved for demonstration in Ohio and where the demonstrations will take place.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio became the legal jurisdictional authority for federal rail highway money in 1989. Authority was transferred to PUCO from the Department of Transportation "for the purpose of tighter regulatory controls," according to the director of PUCO's department of transportation, Alfred Agler.

PUCO specifies the level of crossing protection (i.e. lights only, lights and gates, crossbuck only) and orders the railroads to install the signal system, paid for by ORDC. PUCO also employs inspectors who look for hazards, enforce laws and investigate accidents. Inspectors are also encouraged to look for ways to make crossings safer.

Governor Taft's hiring freeze has stopped PUCO from hiring enough inspectors. "Retirees have not been replaced," said Agler. Currently there are 10 inspectors. "Optimum is 14-15," said Agler, who has not yet replaced Spatero.

"The governor's hiring freeze put everything on hold," said Agler. "However, agencies can fill positions if it makes a case that the position effects public safety. We are in the process of making that case," he added.

The railroads install the lights and gates after PUCO orders them. They install the equipment and assume ownership and maintenance responsibility. Railroads choose the vendor of the equipment and give the ORDC the bill.

Currently, all lights and gates in use in Ohio were made by either Harmon Industries or Safetran. Even though federal money is spent, the vendors do not bid--a fact which nobody could explain.

Do those rules sound confusing? They are to the playactors, too. "We're working hard internally to make it dovetail better," promised O'Leary. But don't expect any consolidation or simplification. "It's hard to enforce laws and pass out goodies from the same shop," said O'Leary.

According to Landskroner, "Railroad law was developed during the industrial expansion. Millions of acres were given to railroads because of massive corruption and the outright control of state legislatures. In most states, localities have no control of the tracks going through their community. Their only source of relief is with state agencies, which are often controlled by the railroads."

"When they are stopped by a municipality, the railroads claim they are federally controlled and then breech any city law they want to," said Landskroner. "It's called federal preemption," he added. "They can do what they damn well please, so they do!"

One of the things railroads do is submit large bills for signal installation, which are rarely questioned by the state or federal authorities. "I have seen bills for $150-$170,000 per crossing, which is ridiculous," said Spatero, noting that there is only about $39,000 worth of parts in them. "I know a contractor in Mahonning County who can put them in [including parts] for $55-$60,000," he said.

What you don't see is deadly

Railroad grade crossing signals are traffic devices. They stop cars, trucks and buses, not trains. They are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Highway Administration and must be included in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices or qualify for demonstration status to be installed at any crossing.

The visual warning to motorists is often criticized for being difficult to see, especially in bad weather. The flashing lights are plain incandescent bulbs. The lights attached to the gates are similar to the taillights on the back of a boat trailer.

What you don't see is that all conventional railroad signals use a detection device called the "track circuit" or "trackswitch" to detect oncoming trains. The track circuit sends a positive charge down one rail and a negative charge down the other, allowing the wheels of the train to complete the circuit that activates the lights and gates. This technology was patented in 1872 before the invention of motor vehicles or high-speed locomotives.

The big problem with track circuit reliability is rust on the tracks, which is common on lines with little traffic. Rust does not conduct electricity. "When the rail gets rusty, the signals go crazy," according to Spatero. Rust can cause the signals not to come on or to come on too late.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are 60,000 signals in the country and 6,000 per month fail. That is an average of one failure every 10 months for each signal.

Larry parsons, chairman of Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway based in Central Ohio, began his railroad career installing signals. He says, "When it gets wet, track circuits short out and sometimes we can't fix them until it dries up a bit."

The conventional signals are designed to fail to "safe" mode, meaning the lights and gates activate. Susan Kirkland, Manager of Rail Highway Safety with ORDC, says this "failing to safe is a positive point" of the conventional signal system. But, as Spatero points out, "the average driver gets nervous after four seconds" and, if there is no train, "tries to go around the gates." Over time, drivers become conditioned that flashing lights and down gates don't necessarily mean a train is coming. Eventually, drivers have less respect for the signals.

"There has been no real change in conventional signal technology in forty years," says Parsons. "In fact, most of it used today goes back to the 1930s."

Harmon Industries and Safetran have developed expensive devices such as "predictors" that predict the speed of a train at a cost of $15,000 each, but the track circuit is stil the weak link.

The audible warning devices also frustrate safety advocates. Landskroner writes, "It shouldn't amaze you to learn that the regulations of horns, bells and whistles were not based on the ability of people to hear them, but rather are...based on distance from the crossing."

Modern systems exist, but not in Ohio

The most technically advanced and most reliable grade crossing signal system in the world costs only $65,000 complete with gates, half the cost of a conventional system.

The EVA Railroad Crossing Signal System made by EVA Signal Corporation of Omaha, Neb., is a computer-age solution to the deficiencies of the conventional signal. Incandescent flashing lights are replaced by high-power strobes mounted five feet above a crossbuck which has been animated with hi-low flashing red light emitting diodes (LEDs). Six yellow halogen lights activate to mimic the direction of the train's approach. The gates are also animated with LEDs.

But most importantly, the EVA Signal uses a magnetometer to detect trains instead of the track circuit. Magnetometers detect changes in the earth's magnetic field, such as the changes caused by large mass of iron in an oncoming train. The sensors, which are buried in the right of way, are linked to a computer located in an underground vault. The system computes the speed of the train without expensive predictors and activates the strobes and gates at the correct time, expensive predictors and activates the strobes and gates at the correct time, regardless of any rust on the tracks.

The EVA Signal also has infrared detectors that guard the "island," or area where the road and grade crossing intersect. The infrared detectors detect and log anything that enters the island once the signal is activated. Such a system functions like the black box on a jetliner in the event of a crash.

ORDC first learned of the EVA Signal in October 1994, but none have been installed in Ohio. Other states are much farther along in testing the system at live crossings, even though Ohio has something the other states do not -- a donated EVA Signal. Further, Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway wants to demonstrate the signal at a crossing in Navarre, in Stark County.

"The EVA Signal would appear to be a more efficient way to provide protection," said Parsons. "It's a breakthrough, and we will be lucky to get one."

The donation comes from Joe Pace, the inventor of the EVA Signal, through The Angels on Track Foundation. Angels on Track was founded by Dennis and Vicky Moore of Canal Fulton in March 1998 with the proceeds from a $5.4 million judgement against Conrail when the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a ruling that Conrail was partly responsible for the death of the Moores' 16-year-old son Ryan and two other high school students.

At the time of that accident,the Deerfield Avenue crossing on the Wayne-Stark county border was a passive crossing. Today, it has lights and gates, partly due to the activism of the Moores.

Angels on Track exists to help counties form rail task forces to identify and do something about dangerous crossings. The foundation will match state funds for rail safety programs and upgrades. So far, only four counties, Stark, Wayne, Carroll and Delaware, have formed task forces, but Vicky Moore vows not to stop until all 88 counties do.

"It's mind boggling to me whey we can't get this EVA Signal installed," said Moore. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out, and Wheeling and Lake Erie wants to use it."

O'Leary and Kirland cite legal complications and technicalities as the reason why the donated EVA Signal cannot be installed in Ohio.

One reason, according to ORDC, is that experimental systems carry additional liability to the railroads and municipalities. But my investigation showed that as long as the device is approved for live demonstration, which the EVA Signal is, there is no additional liability to anyone. EVA Signal Corp., however, does carry $2 million in additional product liability insurance by choice.

ORDC also claims the railroads don't want the EVA Signal. "Railroads that operate in Ohio have shown no interest in the EVA Signal," said O'Leary. Again, what I found doesn't completely support this claim. Wheeling and Lake Erie wants the system in Ohio and is working with the state of Pennsylvania to put EVA signal systems on its lines there.

Kirkland indicated that the first railroad they approached, Ohio Central, sent a letter saying their legal counsel advised them to decline the offer of the donated EVA Signal due to legal exposure.

William Strawn, president of Ohio Central Railroad, said in an interview that he believed the additional liability would come from having only one EVA Signal, not that the EVA Signal itself would create additional liability. "If you are going to install any system, you need to install it with consistency, not just at one location," he said.

Kirkland insists that the Class 1 freight railroads, like CSX and Norfolk and Southern "will never go for this." But Union Pacific, the largest Class 1 railroad, just agreed to field test an EVA Signal. It will "shadow" a "high-tech" system with predictors that has been failing at a busy crossing in Omaha.

Gary Wollenhaupt, director of corporate communications for CSX Transportation was skeptical of new technology and was not familiar with the EVA Signal. But once the system was described to him, he said, "It sounds like it has a lot of attributes we'd be interested in. If there's a move to adopt a signal, CSX will not stand in the way of that."

Then there's the matter of each state submitting the Reqeust for Proposal for Test Site Installation document to the Federal Highway Administration. According to EVA Signal CEO Joe Pace, a copy of North Carolina's RFP with all the test data was sent to Kirkland in mid-December 1998. "All she needed to do," said Pace, "was to change the name on the application from 'North Carolina' to 'Ohio' in a few places. It's about 15 minutes work."

Michael Shumsky, project engineer for the Rail Division of the North Carolina Department of Transporation is excited about the EVA Signal his state will be field testing before the year is over. "North Carolina has one of eight federal high speed rail corridors. We are looking at the EVA Signal to guard all crossings on that corridor," he said.

Kirkland did complete Ohio's RFP, but not until March, when, coincidentally, this story was being investigated. Perhaps the statement most reflective of ORDC's attitude came from Kirkland. "We didn't know if we wanted to study it," she said.

Consequently, every new installation resulting from the Conrail merger will be the less-reliable, track-circuit-activated type, at a cost to taxpayers of $81 million.

People close to the negotiation process believe that what the communities got was better than what they had, even though it is the old technology. A source who wished to remain confidential said the EVA Signal was brought to his attention. "I asked O'Leary about the possibility of installing them here," he said.

But O'Leary told him it couldn't be installed, and the railroads wouldn't want it anyway, so it wasn't pursued. "Besides," said the source, "we know the crossings with gates are safer than the ones without them. We got the gates. We feel like the state came through for us--and a whole year before anyone else would have gotten them."

According to David McGuirk, director of public works for Lakewood, the first of the 19 new gates are just now being installed, beginning at Webb road and working east.

O'Leary maintains, "We're not cold to innovation, we're just trying to bring it online in a way that benefits the industry as a whole." O'Leary is not concerned that Ohio will be left behind in rail safety technology. "Once we see the experiences of other states," he said, "even a slow learner like Ohio can be the second kid on the block."



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