Bells, lights, gates: Officials are trying to get more safety devices installed, but even sites with all the warnings sometimes see accidents

By Thomas Burr

The Salt Lake Tribune

December 26, 2005

WASHINGTON - In the past 10 years, 41 people have been killed at railroad crossings in Utah, with more than half of them at intersections where only a sign warned a driver about a rail line.

In fact, most of the 914 crossings in Utah have only signs, and 61 have no warning at all, according to an analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data. In the wake of a deadly rail-truck crash Dec. 14 in southern Utah, there are new calls to improve crossings to prevent injuries and deaths but only a small pot of money to pay for upgrades.

"Every day [in the United States] somebody's being killed at one of these crossings," says Vickie Moore, an Ohio resident whose 16-year-old son was killed when a train smashed into a car in which he was riding.

Federal investigators still are reviewing details of the recent crash near Moab where an Amtrak train struck a semitrailer that was crossing the the rail line at an intersection with a road. The driver of the rig, David Miller, 26, of Clifton, Colo., was killed, and five passengers and one crew member of the Amtrak train were injured.

The rural crossing has only signs called crossbucks, the recognizable image of two tracks making an X. There is no stop sign. Nearly 380 crossings in Utah have that sign as their only warning mark, and about 80 of them are in Utah's most populous county, Salt Lake, the railroad administration data show.

Supporters of increased crossing protection argue that active intersections - or those with flashing lights and gates that close when a train approaches - are more safe than a passive crossing, where only a stop sign or sign indicating a rail crossing warn a driver to yield to a train.

But active crossings aren't cheap.

The Utah Department of Transportation, which annually has about $1 million in federal money to improve crossings, estimates an upgrade to flashing lights and gates can cost $200,000 to $400,000 for each intersection.

"We would like to be able to address all the crossings and be able to put the appropriate warnings for them," says Michael Seely, chief railroad and utilities engineer for UDOT. But costs are prohibitive, and since the signs are technically road signs, it is the state's responsibility to pay.

"We do try to identify those that are the most needing improvements and address those first," he adds, noting that some upgrades may mean just ensuring the crossing is smooth so a vehicle doesn't get stuck on the rail line. The crossing where the accident happened Dec. 14 will get reviewed for a possible upgrade, Seely said.

Accidents between trains and vehicles have gone down, according to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit supported by rail companies that seeks to educate drivers about crossings.

In 1972, there were an average of 12,000 accidents annually. In 2003, the number was reduced to about 3,000, the organization says.

There are fewer deaths and injuries in Utah now than 10 years ago, but the numbers fluctuate. In 1996, for example, 13 people died at rail crossings and seven were injured. Last year, three people died in a crossing accident.

And, flashing lights and gates don't always stop deaths.

In 2004, an Oregon woman drove her motor home into a train in Juab County, killing her and injuring her husband.

A report with the federal railroad administration and police say the crossing has flashing lights and bells and both were working at the time of the crash.

Two years before, a TRAX train hit and killed a 17-year-old male at the 9400 South station in Sandy. Gates, lights, moving lights called wig-wags, a train bell and crossbucks were there and working.

In the past 10 years in Utah, 17 people have been killed and 22 injured at crossings with either flashing lights, bells or gates, or a combination of the three.

"Usually lights or gates don't stop people from going around," says Vern Keeslar, state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, which he says talked to about 25,000 people in Utah last year about railroad crossings.

Keeslar says no matter the warning device, the main point for drivers is to always expect a train and know that a train cannot stop quickly. The best protection, he says, is education.

Union Pacific, which owns a majority of the track in Utah, is "active" with surveying and upgrading crossings warning systems as well as a safety education program, according to Mark Davis, a spokesman for the Omaha-based company.

Still, he says, drivers must pay attention.

"Every one of those warning devices says the same thing: Yield at the sight of a train," Davis says. "Just heed the warnings, that's all your railroad neighbors are asking you. These collisions and the pedestrian incidents are the most avoidable other than personal" injuries.

Still, some argue that adding lights and gates and ensuring drivers can see if a train is coming far before the intersection would undoubtedly prevent deaths and injuries.

Moore's son, Ryan, was 16 when he and two others were killed in a 1995 crash in Ohio. Even though her elder son Jason was inching the car forward to see if a train was approaching, he couldn't see it until it was too late because of all the obstructions.

"To see down the track, you had to be on the track," Vickie Moore says.

It's unclear how many rail crossings in Utah have such "sight distance" problems, but Utah is not alone in a high number of passive grade crossings.

Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, testified before Congress this summer that according to a study there are 97,000 such crossings in the United States, and more than half of the 4,000 accidents in 1998 happened at passive intersections, which, more than often, are in rural areas with less traffic than active crossings.

"Those numbers have improved somewhat since the study was done, but the accidents and fatalities still occur at unacceptable levels," Rosenker said.

He added that drivers do not always understand that a crossbucks sign means they need to yield to a train, just that they are approaching a rail crossing.

"The crossbuck sign fails to convey a clear, concise, behavior-directing message to the road user," he said.

As for Utah, UDOT's Seely says that some of the more dangerous intersections have been improved and accident numbers appear to show a safer trend.

"I think we do fairly well compared to other states," Seely said about preventing fatalities and injuries. Still, with one person killed so far this year and three injured, there is room for improvement.

"We'd much rather be at zero."

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