Dealdly Ravenna Tracks a Focus
State rule about train sounding its horn changed before crash

Diane Smith

April 7, 2017

Dangerous Crossing Ravenna
This private railroad crossing cut through driveway to residential properties off South Prospect Street in Ravenna. A 15-year-old girl was killed here in 2013. (Lisa Scalfaro/Record-Courier)

When a Ravenna teenager died in a crash at a private railroad crossing in Ravenna Township, residents said they never heard the train blow its horn.

Later, investigators found out that lobbyists for the rail industry had managed to sneak in a change to the law regarding blowing horns at private railroad crossings, just a week before the crash.

Ravenna Township Zoning Inspector Jim DiPaola said he has been in talks with the Norfolk Southern railroad, which owns the railroad crossing off South Prospect Street. He hopes to provide an alternate access to three homes on the other side of the crossing, perhaps through the nearby Harvest Rose development.

Sierra Thornton, 15, was killed Oct. 6, 2013 at the crossing. Thornton, who had just been issued her temporary driver's permit, was driving the family SUV with her father and four sisters, who survived.

Her father, Andy, who moved his family out of the development behind the tracks after the incident, could not be immediately reached.

The Thornton family lived in one of the three homes served by a private driveway off Prospect Street that crosses the tracks. The crossing has a train pass through once every 22.3 minutes. That's 62 trains per day, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. But there's no requirement for gates or lights because it is a private crossing.

Bob Comer, a national rail safety expert who has been investigating crashes for 28 years, said he investigated the Ravenna fatality. It was then when he found the change in the state law.

Since there is no federal law requiring train engineers to blow their whistles at private crossings, it's up to states to make the requirement. Ohio had such a requirement, until legislation rescinding it was put into a huge bill concerning the state budget, Comer said.

There are more than 3,000 private crossings in Ohio. The Prospect Street crossing is one of 30 private crossings in Portage County.
"None in Ohio have any active warning devices," he said.

Comer said train engineers know whether to blow their whistle when they see a sign with a W on it, known as a whistle post.

When he visited the site to investigate the crash, neighbors told him that they never heard the train whistle before the October 2013 crash, which involved a train headed south. The neighbors said they had heard train whistles frequently, when the trains are headed north.

Comer found that a whistle post for northbound trains was still visible from the tracks, but wondered where the southbound post was.
"We found it laying in a ditch," he said.

DiPaola said the railroad used to have a program that would contribute toward the relocation of grade crossings "for the benefit of lower maintenance and better safety." He's contacted the railroad to find out whether the program still exists and what the townships option are.

DiPaola said he is concerned about the railroad's tendency to block the tracks.

"Northfolk Southern used to stop east of that crossing, and they've gotten away from that," he said. Blocking the tracks, he noted, not only prevents residents from exiting the development, but also cuts off police, fire and EMS protection.

"The railroad can be cited for blocking a public road, but not a private one," he said.

Negotiations with a railroad can take a long time, DiPaola noted. It's not clear how much, if anything, the railroad would pay toward an alternate access, and who would pay the remaining cost. In the past, Ravenna Township Trustees have floated the idea of connecting the development to the Harvest Rose apartment complex off North Diamond Street in the city limits.

Vicky Moore of "Angels on Track" said the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has a "consolidation program" that calls for grade crossings to be closed in exchange for improvements at another crossing. The program is funded by taxpayer dollars.

However, she's not sure if the law would pay for the crossing to be replaced with a road exiting the property.

DiPaola said the program he is thinking of is a different one not funded by the PUCO. He said he's kept up to date on rail safety issues.
"I've kept my ear to the ground, and some of this is really new to me," he said.

Moore said her organization advocates for all crossings to have gates and lights, whether they are public or private.

"By making a distinction between a private crossing and a public crossing, you're putting lives at risk," she said.

Shortly after the crash, Ravenna Township Trustees wrote to the railroad to request lights and gates at the Prospect Street crossing, but nothing was ever done.




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