Grade crossings, far from perfect, are here to stay
- Grade crossings, far from perfect, are here to stay
Wednesday, April 5, 2006
By TOM DAVIS
Many of the nation's railroad crossings are old and lack gates and
other warning signals that protect motorists.
If federal officials had their wish, the 250,000 at-grade railroad
crossings would disappear. It's a safety issue, they say.
But local government and railroad officials say they'll keep the
ground-level intersections -- and old-fashioned warning signals --
that motorists have been crossing for more than a century. Although
many grade crossings could be improved, the accident rate is very low,
officials say. A significant upgrade or complete reconfiguration of
the intersections would cost millions of dollars.
Monday's deaths of two landscaping workers whose truck was crushed by
a train in Oakland did little to change officials' minds -- largely
because driver error may have played a role.
"As long as lights are flashing, people have enough sense to stop,"
said Oakland Councilman Donald Burns.
Eyewitnesses said driver Philip Salvatoriello ignored flashing lights
and bells as he tried to beat the oncoming New York, Susquehanna and
Western Railway train. It was the first accident at a grade crossing
in Oakland in 33 years.
Colleagues of Salvatoriello and passenger Anthony Cuccio, however,
believe they would have survived if the crossing was gated. Burns, in
turn, agreed that the borough could request an upgrade -- as long as
Steve Kulm, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said
his agency provides $220 million each year to help communities and
railroad systems improve or replace their grade crossings.
How to pay for it, however, is a local decision, Kulm said. "You can
use state dollars. You can use federal dollars," he said. "In some
cases, you can use some percentage of railroad dollars."
The funding helps the FRA move closer to its 15-year goal of reducing
the number of grade crossing nationwide by a quarter. The agency is 72
percent of the way toward its goal, Kulm said.
Many of the closings occur because a train company abandons old lines.
But the FRA does encourage the closing of grade crossings -- and, if
possible, replacing them with an overhead trestle.
"There is no question that the safest grade crossing is the one that
does not exist," Kulm said.
But Thomas O'Neil, a spokesman for the New York, Susquehanna and
Western Railway, said upgrading a grade crossing isn't always
necessary -- as long as there is some warning signal.
"In a densely populated state like New Jersey, there are just lots and
lots of grade crossings," said O'Neil. "[Replacing them] would be like
building the Interstate Highway System on the railroads."
O'Neil pointed to a $5 million project in Hackensack to raise the
River Street trestle by 2 feet. The scope of the project would be
typical of rebuilding a grade crossing, he said.
NJ Transit, meanwhile, says its safety record at grade crossings is
"excellent." All of them have bells, flashing lights and gates, said
Dan Stessel, a spokesman for the agency.
In 2005, there were six accidents and one fatality involving a train
and a motor vehicle at NJ Transit grade crossings, Stessel said. There
are none so far this year.
Municipalities, meanwhile, say they haven't felt the need to push for
upgrades -- other than routine maintenance, such as filling potholes.
"We do stay on top of it to make sure all the safety precautions are
in place," said Stephen Lo Iacono, Hackensack's city manager.