Deaths at rail crossings in Missouri doubled last year

Monday, March 6, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- Deaths at Missouri rail crossings doubled in 2005, reversing a decade-long trend in safer crossings, according to a newspaper report.

Preliminary figures from the Missouri Department of Transportation show 17 people died from crashes along public rail crossings, the most since 1996, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday. There were 65 collisions last year, up from 45 in 2004.

Missouri also logged a 28 percent increase in crashes at minimally marked crossings, ones marked by only an X-shaped rail warning sign called a crossbuck.

"That is something that needs to catch all our attention," said Rod Massman, the department's railroad administrator, to nearly 30 state railroad representatives and law enforcement officials at a meeting in Jefferson City last month.

Missouri has authority over 3,800 public rail crossings along 4,400 miles of train track. An additional 3,000 or so crossings are on private land, many of them farms, and not under the state's jurisdiction.

Efforts to improve rail crossings began in the 1970s when federal funds started going to states for rail crossing improvements. Missouri motorists also began paying into the Grade Crossing Safety Account every time they renewed their license plates.

Deaths at the state's public crossings have since dropped 81 percent, state figures show. Railroad safety advocates credit active warning devices, such as flashing lights and gates.

But fewer than half of the state's crossings have any warning devices at all. The federal government says more than 100 have no marking at all.

"In this day and age, can they put gates up? They can," said Patti Abbatte, executive director of Citizens for Rail Safety in Woburn, Mass. "It's all about money."

The Multimodal Division under the Missouri Department of Transportation spends $6.3 million each year on equipment upgrades at crossings. The money buys lights and gates for between 20 and 30 crossings a year, out of the 1,985 that still don't have them. Railroads install the equipment, and then the state reimburses their expenses typically at $175,000 to $200,000 per crossing.

Some railroad officials question the effectiveness of the lights and gates, given that half of all crashes nationwide happen at crossings that have active signals.

"I can't overemphasize that even the standard crossbuck is still a warning device," said Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific. "Much like a yield sign getting on to Highway 40 at rush hour."

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