THE LATEST MISSISSIPPI TRAGEDY COULD HAPPEN IN OHIO
The murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County Mississippi in the summer of 1964 resulted in outrage and a book by William Bradford Huie entitled, ”Three Lives For Mississippi.” Now 53 years later in 2017, a collision between a freight train and charter bus at a railroad crossing in Biloxi, Mississippi has resulted in multiple deaths and injuries. While not equivalent, the two incidents have a common thread. They are catastrophic events that provide impetus for positive change. In the case of the murders, the Civil Rights Act was passed later that year. Hopefully, the Mississippi crossing accident will spur a movement to eliminate dangerous railroad crossings similar to the one in Biloxi. Since such crossings exist in Ohio, State officials would be well served by viewing the Biloxi tragedy as a wake-up call for self examination.
Overview of Biloxi Tragedy
On March 6, 2017, a CSX freight train comprised of 52 cars slammed into a charter bus carrying 50 people. A sign near the crossing with the words “LOW GROUND CLEARANCE” and an image of a semi-trailer crossing a railroad track with surrounding “zigzag,” was installed to warn low-clearance vehicles not to use the crossing. The bus entered the track structure and came to a stop with the center of its undercarriage resting on the track — a phenomena known as “hangup.” The bus driver tried to free the bus to no avail. Minutes later the train approached. At about 500 feet from the crossing, the engineer applied the emergency brakes, slowing the train from 26 miles-per-hour to 16 miles-per-hour at the point of impact. The train rammed into the middle of the bus driving it 300 feet down the track before coming to a stop, with the mangled bus still standing. Four deaths and 40 injuries were reported with 35 people hospitalized and seven in critical condition.
The accident could have been worse. First, the train had an allowable speed of 45 miles-per-hour but operated at a lower speed due to drawbridge work and related traffic. Second, given a different angle of impact, the bus could have derailed and overturned. And third, some of the passengers disembarked the bus just prior to the collision. Almost immediately, there were accusations of irresponsibility leveled against the railroad, bus operator, and public officials. About a week after the accident, a commercial bus approached the same crossing but was turned away by local police and fire fighters. Shortly thereafter, the Biloxi crossing was closed to low-clearance vehicles.
Ohio’s Humped Crossings
The number, location, and grade variances of humped crossings in Ohio appears to be unknown. In compliance with a federal program, the State maintains an inventory of its approximately 5,700 public railroad crossings. Published by the Ohio Rail Development Corporation (ORDC), in conjunction with the Public utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), the inventory lists various identifying factors, but no designation of crossings being humped. Rather, information as to the existence and location of humped crossings derives from citizens who fill out a “Dangerous Crossing Report,” initially developed and still employed by the Angels on Track Foundation (Salineville, Ohio), and/or a similar report subsequently adopted by ORDC. In the ORDC report, the responder can check a “yes” in a box marked “Humped Crossing,” explained as “The road rises before the tracks and drops after, creating a hill or hump in the road with the tracks at the top. Such crossings are identified as “humped” only because a citizen believes that the track elevation is dangerous, without any supporting engineering standard. In some cases, warning signs have been installed at humped crossings. In essence, Ohio has neither a systematic program to identify humped crossings, or an effective program to eliminate them.
Undefined Humped Crossings
There is a primary and a secondary source that recommend height tolerances for humped crossings. Their similar standards are considered to be guidelines and may or may not be followed by highway and safety administrators. First and by far foremost, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), in its publication, Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Divices (MUTCD), states that a railroad crossing’s change in elevation should be no more than 3 inches higher or lower from the top of the nearest rail at a point 30 feet from the rails.” This standard is similar to one published by the American Railway Engineering Association (AREA), in its Manual for Railway Engineering. Furthermore, where geometric and topographic conditions allow, the crossing surface is to be at the same plane as the top of the rails for a distance of two feet outside the rails. The United States Department of Transportation (both the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Railroad Administration) has referenced the AASHTO standard and has recommended its use but has not adopted it as a regulatory requirement. Neither has Ohio. However, many other AASHTO standards have been adopted by State and county highway authorities throughout the country.
In Ohio, Section 45.11.62 of the Ohio Revised Code states that: (1) Whenever any person driving a vehicle or trackless trolley approaches a railroad grade crossing, the person shall stop within fifty feet, but not less than fifteen feet from the nearest rail of the railroad if any of the following circumstances exist at the crossing: and (2) There is insufficient undercarriage clearance to safely negotiate the crossing. If there is insufficient undercarriage, the vehicle shall not proceed over the crossing. The term “insufficient undercarriage” is not only open to interpretation, it puts the onus on the driver of motor vehicles. The lack of a standard for humped crossings in Ohio suggests that not all such crossings in the State are equipped with a warning sign.
Ohio’s Reliance on Citizens and Motorists
It is quizzical as to why Ohio relies on untrained citizens to report what they believe are humped crossings, and then when identified, install a warning sign rather than eliminating them. Listed below are possible answers:
1. Since motor vehicles are required by law to yield to trains in all instances, there is a pervasive belief among highway and safety administrators that motorists are at fault for virtually all crossing collisions. Thus, installing a warning sign at humped crossings is akin to “yield” and “stop” signs at tens of thousands of passive crossings throughout the country. Warning/informational signs do not eliminate dangerous conditions, but they are generally accepted as a minimum safety device. Such signage is also consistent with the mantra of motorist responsibility and fault.
2. There is no political and/or public pressure on Ohio authorities to either enact a law to eliminate humped crossings, or to adopt standards to identify them. This may be because fatal railroad-crossing accidents most often result in either one or two deaths, occur in rural areas and receive limited press coverage. Furthermore, public opinion is influenced by such so-called safety organizations as Operation Lifesaver, that overwhelmingly emphasizes motorist irresponsibility as the cause of crossing accidents, as opposed to “bad” crossings.
3. Administration of the grade-crossing environment is balkanized. It involves railroads, a number of federal government agencies, State government, local government, highway authorities, safety organizations, and law enforcement. It is not uncommon for organizations to take credit for safety successes while deflecting criticism for failures. And it is not uncommon to spend less money to achieve minimum, rather than optimal, safety at railroad crossings.
4. Ohio safety organizations are not required by law and/or regulations to identify and/or eliminate humped crossings. They are not even required to adopt engineering standards to identify such crossings. ORDC was virtually “embarrassed” into developing a citizen-generated, humped-crossing report after its initiation and use by the Angels on Track Foundation. That the State did not go a step further and identify humped crossings on its own accord “speaks volumes” about the practice of some public agencies to do no more than what is legally required. Such behavior may be a cultural phenomena.
It is likely that only a relatively small percentage of Ohio’s 5,700 public railroad crossings are humped, when measured by AASHTO standards. Thus, it would not be an onerous task for the State to identify such crossings and make them part of its data base available to the public. Even one humped crossing presents the chance of a catastrophic accident. While truck and bus “hang-ups” are possible, humped crossings also present visual problems to all motorists as they make it difficult to see approaching trains. Once identified, humped crossings should be a factor in creating the State’s railroad-crossing “hazard index” — a requirement for receiving federal funds to upgrade safety at crossings. Also, it is in the public interest for Ohio to develop a program where a combination of federal, State, and railroad funds are used to eliminate humped crossings throughout the State.
*Dr. Levine is a retired transportation consultant who previous worked at the Interstate Commerce Commission, U.S. Department of Transportation, and for 18 years, as a vice president and officer of the Association of American Railroads. Over the past 20 years, he has served as an expert witness in scores of cases involving railroad-crossing accidents. He holds a PhD in transportation economics.