Crossing-Signal Offer Delayed For Testing


Monday, July 24, 2000

By James F. Sweeney -- Reporter

More than three years ago, a company donated safety signals to a Stark County foundation promoting safety at railroad crossings.

Despite the need to improve safety at the 3,020 public railroad crossings in Ohio that don't have lights, the signals have yet to be installed. The manufacturer of the signals, a railroad and the charitable foundation blame the Ohio Rail Development Commission, a division of state government. The ORDC said it did everything it could to get lights installed, and blames the company and the railroad.

But all agree they want to prevent more tragedies like the one that got the whole thing started.

On March 25, 1995, three youths died and three were injured when their car was hit by a Conrail train at a crossbuck-only crossing on the border of Stark and Wayne counties.

Dennis and Vicky Moore of Canal Fulton lost one son and had another injured in the accident. They sued Conrail and won. They used the $5.4 million award to establish the Angels on Track Foundation, pledging to help local governments pay for lights and gates at crossings.

That got the attention of an Omaha, Neb., company, EVA Signal Corporation, which is marketing a new technology in railroad crossing safety.

Put simply, most railroad warning systems rely on electrical currents passed through the rails. When a train approaches, its metal wheels and axles close a circuit, triggering the lights and gates at the crossing.

It is essentially the same system that has been in use for 100 years. It is reliable, but not foolproof. Rain, mud, rust and snow on the tracks can interfere with the current and activate lights and gates when there is no train. If that happens repeatedly at a crossing, drivers learn to ignore the gates and drive around them ö sometimes into the path of an oncoming train.

EVA uses magnetometers buried next to the track to detect changes in the magnetic field caused by an approaching train to activate the lights and gates. Because they are below ground, the sensors are protected from weather and pranksters who lay metal pipes across the tracks to lower the gates.

But the company found that the railroad industry and the bureaucracies that regulate it are not eager to abandon the proven for something new. Ten years after its founding, EVA Signal has only three signals operating.

Outside Omaha, the Union Pacific Railroad is testing one at a crossing by running it parallel with the existing signal and comparing their performance.

"We're happy with its operation", said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis, who added that the railroad was studying whether it would be cheaper to use the EVA signal on a wide scale.

Two other signals are in use at chemical plants in Nebraska and Texas.

EVA Signal had hoped to be in Ohio by now.

Company executives met with state officials in June 1997 to demonstrate their equipment and offer a free $50,000 signal to be installed wherever Angels on Track wanted. Initially, interest was high.

The Ohio Rail Development Commission wanted to buy 10 to 12 signals and install them on a railroad line in southeastern Ohio. The Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway, a Canton-based short-line railroad, volunteered to have the donated signal installed at one of its crossings.

But before buying equipment, the state wanted to make sure EVA Signal had enough insurance to protect Ohio in case of a crossing accident and wanted specific costs of installing and maintaining the new system.

EVA Signal did not provide the requested information in time, said Thomas O'Leary, director of the ORDC until April.

"Over a period of two to three years·we attempted to work with EVA signal to put in a test apparatus. Each time we began to push the solution, it fell apart," O'Leary said.

That's nonsense, said Christopher G. Seitz, president of EVA Signal. The company has $3 million insurance for a crossing and could easily have gotten more, he said.

EVA Signal told the state how much the signals cost, Seitz said, adding that the ORDC simply could have written the price into a contract.

Another problem, O'Leary said, was Wheeling & Lake Erie's rejection of the state's condition that the signal be tested in conjunction with traditional lights and gates at a crossing before it could be used alone.

Railroad President Larry Parsons said he was satisfied that the EVA Signal was safe and did not need more testing.

In 1998, the pending takeover of Conrail by CSX and Norfolk Southern began to occupy ORDC and the ORDC told EVA Signal its plans would have to wait.

In May 1999, the ORDC got permission from the Federal Highway Administration to test the EVA signal, but nothing is planned.

"The feeling I'm getting is I just wasn't a top priority for them," Seitz said. "I didnât think it would take this long. I couldn't imagine it would take this long. We just want to know what to do. How do we overcome this?"

The failure to get the free signal installed also upsets Vicky Moore of Angels on Track.

She said the ORDC did not do enough to force railroads to improve safety and blamed it for not installing the EVA signal.

"Somebody doesn't want this to happen," she said.

But EVA Signal might yet get its lights and gates at an Ohio crossing.

New ORDC Director James E. Seney said he was interested in testing the technology on different lines and under various conditions.

But, like his predecessor O'Leary, he is wary of the new technology and said satisfactory tests done on EVA Signal systems in Texas and Nebraska were not good enough.

If EVA Signal's technology is used here, it will only be after it is tested in parallel with existing signals.

"In my estimation, we are really going to have to start from square one," he said.


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