The Repository

By KELI YOUNG Repository staff writer

June 3, 2013

CANTON —The same year that Stark County had its first fatal train crash in eight years, the county also saw more railroad crossing safety upgrades completed in at least a decade.

New figures from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which regulates rail crossings statewide, show that 71 train-vehicle crashes occurred at public railroad crossings in Ohio last year, resulting in nine deaths and 25 injuries. Stark County ranked in the top five of counties with the highest number of crashes and was among the six counties that had at least one death due to a crash, according to the figures, which reflect only crashes that occurred at railroad crossings.

So far this year, no crashes have been reported in Stark County. But it’s only the beginning of June — the month when PUCO figures show that most crashes occur.

One of Stark County’s three crashes last year occurred in June. Railroad officials reported that a pickup drove through the rail crossing at Third Street NE in Canton just before 8 p.m. on June 17 and failed to yield to an oncoming train. The train, owned by Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway, clipped the truck’s passenger rear taillight, but the unidentified driver sped away.

The second crash came less than a month later. Wiladine “Billy” Van Wert, 85, of Jackson Township was killed July 13 when a Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train struck her car at the Portage Street NW crossing, west of Whipple Avenue NW. The Ohio Highway Patrol ruled that Van Wert, who had been traveling alone, drove her Honda sedan through a lowered gate and into the path of the southbound train. The train’s two passengers and five crew members were not injured.

Van Wert’s death was the first train crash fatality for Stark County since 2004, PUCO figures show.

At 1:08 a.m. the next day, a Norfolk Southern Railway train demolished an abandoned Kia Optima that had been stalled on the tracks. Louisville police said the driver, who later was arrested for drunk driving, had mistook the railroad tracks for a road and turned south on them. No one was injured.

In 2011, Stark County had one train-vehicle crash but no injuries or fatalities.

While the county’s crash rate ticked up last year, the number of railroad crossings that have gates, flashers and other safety devices also increased. Officials installed improvements at 40 railroad intersections — by the far the most improvements in at least a decade. The upgrades included adding flashing lights and gates to more than a dozen railroad intersections, replacing 8-inch incandescent lights to 12-inch LED lights and closing four public crossings.

PUCO Spokesman Jason Gilham said the agency employs certified railroad inspectors throughout Ohio who routinely inspect the tracks and equipment as well as respond to public inquiries and complaints to determine which crossings are upgraded. About half of Ohio’s 7,000 public rail crossings are now equipped with flashing lights and gates.

Inspectors last year surveyed the E. Broadway Street railroad crossing in Alliance and found that it needed new mast-mounted flashing lights and roadway gates. The project is expected to cost $478,387 and will be covered by federal funds.

Norfolk Southern Railway, which owns the railroad, is expected to install the warning devices by February.

Vicky Moore, founder of Angels on Track, said the upgrades are welcomed but more still needs to be done as dangerous, unprotected, sight obstructed railroad crossings still exist.

Beyond the warning devices, Moore, whose foundation seeks to make railroad crossings safer, said vegetation that blocks a driver's view of the tracks needs to be trimmed or removed.

She suspected that high vegetation could be one of the contributing factors to the rise of crashes in the summer.

“The law states that drivers are supposed to yield to an oncoming train, but how can you yield to something you cannot see?” she said.


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