Biloxi bus crash probe looks at crossing, route
Biloxi has known for years that its railroad crossings were a problem, sometimes a fatal one.
Even before the c ollision between a CSX freight train and an Echo Transportation tour bus Tuesday killed four Texas tourists and injured almost three dozen others in the Mississippi coastal town, trains had slammed into vehicles 16 times since 1976 at that crossing. Those wrecks caused deaths in 1983 and 2003, according to The Associated Press.
Last March, another casino tour bus got stuck where Main Street crosses the CSX freight line, with enough time for all 28 passengers to safely evacuate. As recently as January, a train slammed into a soft drink delivery truck that became stuck on the tracks there, a wreck that produced no deaths or injuries.
The Biloxi city government just last month had concluded that six of the 29 “grade crossings” in the town — intersections of streets and the railroad track at the same level — should be closed. A public hearing was scheduled for March
21. The Main Street crossing, despite the presence of yellow “low ground clearance” signs on each side of the somewhat elevated tracks, wasn’t on that list of potential closures.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich told the Biloxi Sun Herald on Wednesday, though he noted even limousines have gotten stuck there. “It’s going to take months, if not years, to do what needs to be done in terms of reducing the obstacles that cause these kinds of things.”
In the wake of Tuesday’s incident and amid growing suspicion that the crossing’s humpback design might have caused the bus to become high-centered on the track, the National Transportation Safety Board is keenly interested as well. A team of investigators arrived early Wednesday for what is likely to be a week or more of analysis.
“This one is particularly of concern to us because there was another accident at this same grade crossing two months ago,” Robert Sumwalt, the safety board’s lead investigator, said in an early morning news conference as his group prepared to leave Washington, D.C., for Mississippi. “What is it about this intersection?”
While emphasizing the investigation is still in the early stages, Sumwalt added that his agency could recommend closing the crossing to large vehicles, asking local authorities and the rail company to build an underpass or overpass, or flattening out the approaches to the tracks.
That street-rail crossing, like many around the country, features a sharp incline leading to the tracks and then, on the north side in
‘This one is particularly of concern to us because there was another accident at this same grade crossing two months ago. What is it about this intersection?’ Robert Sumwalt NTSB lead investigator
this case, an even steeper elevation drop on the other side. That causes particular trouble for longer vehicles like buses that have wide spacing between the tires. It increases the chances that a vehicle moving at slow speed could become suspended on its undercarriage, leaving the critical rear tires spinning helplessly above the ground.
Al Smith, chairman of the Bus Industry Safety Council and director of safety and security for Greyhound Lines Inc., said a typical over-theroad bus is 45 feet long, with about 35 feet between the tires. Buses normally have no more than 18 inches of clearance off the ground.
Beyond that, federal law and industry practice require that the bus come to a complete stop no more than 15 feet from the tracks. The driver’s job at that point, Smith said, is to “stop, look and listen” for oncoming trains.
Then, after determining that there are no obstructions on the other side of the track (such as a nearby traffic light), the driver can move ahead. But given the short distance to the track from that stop, the bus might be going as slow as 3 mph when it makes the crossing. That provides little or no momentum to keep moving forward if the vehicle begins to get high-centered, he said.
Witnesses said the bus had been stalled on the tracks for five to 10 minutes before the braking train hit at what the safety board said was 19 mph. That raises the question of why all but a handful of the 51 mostly senior bus passengers were still aboard when the train hit. Smith said the watchword in the industry in distress situations is to make the passengers the top priority.
“The first thing you do is evacuate the coach and get them to a safe place,” Smith said.
Guidance from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is blunt on the subject of what to do if a vehicle is hung or stalled on tracks: “GET OUT IMMEDIATELY,” it says.
Jeff DeGraff, a spokesman for Union Pacific railroad (which wasn’t involved in this incident), said the street design is the responsibility of the city, county or state department of transportation that built it — not the railroad.
“The railroad maintains the area between the tips of the railroad ties,” DeGraff said. “We of course consult with them because we don’t want them to do anything to impede the tracks.”
The awkward design of the Main Street crossing raises the question of why the driver of the Texas-based Echo Transportation tour bus, which was on its way to a casino several blocks north of the railroad track, would have chosen that route.
The company, which has a “satisfactory” safety rating from the feds, and the driver weren’t saying anything specific publicly. But the bus was coming from Louisiana and could have used Interstate 10 and a city street to reach the casino without having to cross the railroad tracks.
Sumwalt said part of his investigation would be to find out if Echo has a preferred route for its drivers to use in Biloxi, and, if so, whether the driver in this case followed that recommendation.