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In the last 10 years, there have been more than 29,000 railroad crossing collisions resulting in more than 10,000 injuries and more than 3,500 deaths. Train accidents and, specifically, railroad crossing accidents, can have devastating effects on motor vehicles. When a train hits another vehicle — a car, truck or SUV — the results are catastrophic. Often, these accidents and deaths could have been prevented. Railroad companies know about these dangers, but often do little to prevent collisions. Instead, railroad companies refuse to upgrade safety devices (like crossing gates and warning lights) unless state or local governments pay for them. Railroad companies want cash-strapped local governments to give them a "bailout" for safety improvements.

There have been several train crashes across the country in just the last few days:

  • Elliott City, Maryland — a 28-year-old man died this weekend when he was hit by a train [Larry Carson at The Baltimore Sun]
  • Oldsmar, Florida — four people were injured when a freight train crashed into a car on Sunday Night [Chad Cookler at ABC Action News]
  • Taylor, Michigan — a girl remains hospitalized after he uncle’s vehicle was struck by a train [Catherine Jun at The Detroit News]
  • Norborne, Missouri — a 19-year-old woman was lucky to be alive after a speeding train crashed into the front end of her vehicle at a railroad crossing without lights or gates [Eric Adler at The Kansas City Star]
  • Manteca, California — a young woman was killed over the weekend when she was struck by a Union Pacific freight train [Glenn Kahl at the Manteca Bulletin]
  • Newberry County, South Carolina — a Midlands man was luckily uninjured when when his vehicle was struck by a train Sunday morning []

It is important for motorist to be aware of railroad crossing dangers. Everyone should be cautious when approaching a railroad crossing. Because it is difficult for trains to stop, the railroad company and train crew are required to properly warn motorists of an approaching train. Sometimes, a vehicle’s driver can do everything right, but is not given a proper warning. This appears to be the case in the Norborne, Missouri train accident.

According to the Kansas City Star’s report, the driver approached the unguarded railroad crossing and brought her vehicle to a stop. The driver looked both ways to see if a train was approaching, but the setting sun obscured her view of the approaching train. As the driver inched forward, the "BNSF Railway train smashed her car…."

Congress passed legislation in 2008 that requires the FRA to make efforts to improve safety. In response, the Agency announced rules last July that require the 10 states with the most crossing accidents or collisions to develop safety plans. The 10 states have one year to make the plans and five years to implement them.

While I applaud the FRA for doing more to increase safety, I wonder why the Agency is attacking cash strapped state governments rather than railroads who actual own and operate the tracks. Railroad tracks are the privately owned property of giant railroad corporations — companies run by corporate giants like Warren Buffett and make billions of dollars in profits every year. Why are states being forced to make safety improvements for these giant, profitable railroads? Is this some sort of railroad industry bailout?

Railroads often refuse to install safety devices (such as lights and gates at crossings) without getting funding from the federal or state government. Why? Why don’t railroad companies do more to make sure their railroad tracks and crossings are safe?

Fox 4 News in Kansas City featured an in-depth story about one small town’s battle to have warning lights and a crossing gate installed. The Union Pacific Railroad refused to install the warning devices without state or local government money. The small Missouri town simply could not afford the cost.

Railroad collisions have many causes — most of which have everything to do with the railroad and nothing to do with state or local governments.

  • Failure of railroad company to install proper warning devices, such as lights, alarms (crossing bells) or a functioning crossing gate

  • Defective warnings — inoperable lights, bells or gates

  • Improper sight lines that prevent a vehicle’s driver from seeing an oncoming train until it is too late

  • Failure to properly maintain the crossing — such as allowing overgrown trees, vegetation and other foliage to obstruct or hide an oncoming train

  • Improperly parking a train at or near a crossing — this not only hides an oncoming train from view, but gives motorists a false sense of safety in seeing a parked train at the crossing

  • Failure to sound the train’s horn or whistle at or near the crossing

  • Other negligence that may appear on the train’s data recorder or video recorder

Some railroad companies even try to cover up their role in causing these collisions rather than implement safety improvements to prevent them.

In October, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad was hit with a $4 million penalty — on top of a $21.6 million jury verdict — because of its "staggering" pattern of misconduct that included destroying evidence in an attempted cover-up of its role in the deaths of four young people who were killed at one of its railroad crossings.

The Court found that BNSF destroyed some evidence, fabricated other evidence, interfered with the investigation and purposefully lied and advanced misleading facts in order to conceal the truth.

Railroad crossing collisions keep happening. Railroad companies need to stop putting profits in front safety. We don’t need a railroad safety bailout when these companies have the resources to make their own tracks safe.

[More information on Train Safety]

(c) Copyright 2010 Brett A. Emison

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