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Deaths At Rail Crossings On Rise Again

California has most fatalities; safety experts say companies, government not doing enough

Mar 13, 2005 | Alameda Times-Star

Deaths at railroad grade crossings rose 11 percent last year, according to new federal figures, and the government failed to meet its 10-year goal of no more than 300 crossing deaths by 2004.

Crossing deaths had been falling steadily in recent years. But last year, 369 people died at rail crossings, with three of the four major freight railroads reporting a rise in deaths, federal figures show. Norfolk Southern registered a 50 percent increase, the most of any major railroad, with 60 deaths. More people, 77, died at crossings owned by Union Pacific, the nation's largest railroad.

California had the most grade crossing deaths last year, 34, followed by Texas, Illinois, Indiana and Louisiana.

In all, more than 3,000 accidents occurred at grade crossings last year about one every three hours. Some rail-safety experts say the new figures support their view that the railroads and the government are not doing enough to make grade crossings safer.

"I find that disconcerting, because we had a history of slow but steady decline of grade crossing fatalities over the years," said George Gavalla, a former top safety official with the Federal Railroad Administration. "We worked hard to encourage railroads to invest in crossing safety programs, and looking at these statistics, I wonder if that level of investment was being maintained."

Federal transportation officials declined to respond specifically to questions about the failure to achieve their 10-year goal.

Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for the large freight rail companies, said, "We very much regret the increase, and we wish it had not occurred." But the rail association and the Federal Railroad Administration said the rise in deaths needed to be viewed in the context of heavier rail traffic last year.

White said the railroad association was "committed to working with all of the authorities to bring those numbers down." One way to do that is through more driver education, White said.

But Harvey Levine, a former vice president of the railroad association who is an advocate for rail crash victims, said railroads should examine their own conduct. Levine said his study of rail crossings in Ohio found that many had sight obstructions that made it difficult for drivers to see approaching trains.

Last summer, after The New York Times reported on grade crossing hazards, Union Pacific said it would improve the way it reported accidents, monitored warning signals at crossings and collected evidence from crossing accidents.

Last Monday, the New York state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, said another railroad, CSX, had agreed to pay a $1 million fine to settle state charges that it failed to report properly and fix promptly hundreds of warning-signal malfunctions at grade crossings across the state.

Spitzer said his investigation found that CSX sometimes took months to fix broken warning signals. As part of its settlement with the state, CSX agreed to fix signals more quickly.

Deaths at CSX crossings last year also rose to 58 from 52 the previous year. Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, said his company would try to reduce deaths by cutting vegetation around crossings, by closing more rail crossings, and with programs to educate drivers. Though more people died at CSX crossings, Sease said, the overall number of accidents declined.


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