Biloxi bus crash probe looks at cross­ing, route

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Wear bwear@states­man.com

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.

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