When Do Deadly Railroad Crossings Call For Better Warning Signals? - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

When Do Deadly Railroad Crossings Call For Better Warning Signals?

Missouri Department of Transportation inspectors are now investigating what caused a deadly train accident over the weekend.

Fifty-two year old Jesse Whittley Junior died when the tractor-trailer he was driving was hit by a train on Sunday afternoon.  It happened at the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe crossing on Highway Z near Vanduser.  Initial reports say the crossing signal lights were working, but local residents speculate that glare from the afternoon sun may have impaired Whittley's vision.  State highway department inspectors visited the crossing on Tuesday to see if it's dangerous enough to need a crossing gate.

So how do inspectors decide which crossings need better warning signals, and which ones don't? Before a railroad crossing ever turns deadly, it's rated on the likelihood of an accident happening there.  That likelihood is based on how many trains and vehicles cross there each day, how fast they're going, and if there's anything that might block a driver's vision.  Crossings with the highest likelihood are placed on the top of a state's priority list.  Once a crossing turns deadly, it might get bumped up in priority, but that's not always the case.

The Missouri Department of Transportation says just because someone dies at a railroad crossing, doesn't mean it will immediately qualify for federal funding to put in a better warning system.  Each state has only so much money to spend, and a lot of crossings to consider.  Missouri, for example, gets to spend about four-million dollars in federal money each year on crossing signals.  The average light and gate crossing system costs upwards of 150-thousand dollars, and there are thousands of crossings that need them.  Thus, the need to prioritize.

Because it doesn't get a lot of traffic, the deadly crossing on Highway Z is so far down on Missouri's priority list that even Whittley's death may not bump it up enough to get a warning gate.  In Missouri, there has to be at least three deaths at the same crossing in the last five years.

But another deadly Heartland accident could bump up one crossing on Illinois' priority list. Five people died in July at a Norfolk Southern crossing on Standford Lane, just outside of Mt. Vernon.  There was neither a gate nor lights to warn the family before their mini-van was crushed by an oncoming train.  Since that accident, the Illinois Commerce Commission has reevaluated the crossing, and is now checking into installing both flashing lights and a warning gate there.

If a community disagrees with a state's decision, and strongly feels a particular crossing needs better warning signals, it can appeal that decision by filing a petition with the right organization.  For instance, in Missouri, it's the State Administrative Hearing Commission.  A judge will hear the case, and if he or she agrees with the community, both MoDOT and the railroad could be forced to help pay for the better warning signals.  If the judge sides with the state, a community could get the signals it wants by raising the money on its own, and working with the railroad to get them installed.  Communities in other states should check with that state's transportation department to find out where to file such an appeal.

Officials with MoDOT, the Illinois Department of Transportation, and the Illinois Commerce Commission all point out that they wish they could install better signals at every dangerous crossing.  Unfortunately, there's only so much money to go around.  That's why they say they would gladly welcome any community's financial help.

One Missouri Highway Patrol officer also points out that if drivers "know" that crossings are dangerous, they should take extra-special caution when driving across them. 

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