Rail cross­ing not the threat they once were

Rail­roads serv­ing Cen­tral Texas fo­cus­ing more on safety.

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

The MetroRail en­gi­neer didn’t hit his brakes un­til the car stalled on the tracks up ahead was as close as 100 feet from the front of train.

The high-speed col­li­sion in April 2012 pushed the crum­pled white sedan 80 yards down the track, killing the 32-year-old man be­hind the wheel and se­verely in­jur­ing his two boys in the back seat. None of the 128 pas­sen­gers or the en­gi­neer on the train was hurt.

The crash along­side North MoPac Boule­vard near Scofield Ridge Park­way raised ques­tions, never fully re­solved, about why the car was un­able to move beyond the hump-backed cross­ing, so named be­cause the road sloped con­sid­er­ably on the west side of the tracks. But Cap­i­tal Metro’s ul­ti­mate re­sponse to the wreck — the agency in Jan­uary 2016 closed that pri­vate cross­ing and placed bar­ri­ers in front of it to pre­vent its use — aligns with the ac­tivist ap­proach that area rail­roads have taken to such col­li­sions over the years.

The re­sult has been that such rail­road cross­ings in Cen­tral Texas, though by no means risk­free, are much safer than they were a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

Ac­cord­ing to an Am er­i­can-States­man re­view of more

than 40 years of train-ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dent re­ports from the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the greater Austin area’s 462 at-grade cross­ings in­clude no un­usu­ally deadly ones such as the cross­ing in Biloxi, Miss., where four Texas tourists died March 7. At least, not any longer.

And based on records filed by rail­road op­er­a­tors with the rail­road agency since 1975, the rate of col­li­sions be­tween trains and cars or trucks in Travis, Hays, Wil­liamson and Bas­trop coun­ties has fallen by al­most 60 per­cent since the 1980s. This has oc­curred even as the area’s pop­u­la­tion — and thus the num­ber of cars on the road — has tripled since 1985.

Fa­tal­i­ties, too, have fallen, from about 1.8 peo­ple killed each year in those four coun­ties from 1975 through 1999, to an av­er­age of 0.7 an­nual fa­tal­i­ties at rail­road cross­ings from 2000 to 2016. These statis­tics don’t in­clude in­ci­dents or deaths from what the rail­road in­dus­try dubs “tres­passers,” typ­i­cally peo­ple walk­ing on tracks.

That im­prove­ment at cross­ings since the turn of the cen­tury has sev­eral causes, in­clud­ing fed­eral, state and rail­road com­pany spend­ing to add ac­tive cross­ing sig­nals — blink­ing lights and gates — where pre­vi­ously there might have been only static “cross­buck” signs that are eas­ier to over­look or ig­nore.

In Austin, the rail­roads, the city and Cap­i­tal Metro have es­tab­lished “quiet zones” un­der fed­eral rules that in­clude me­di­ans and four-bar­rier gates mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for a mo­torist to get on the tracks when a train is ap­proach­ing.

“Cross­ings have been a ma­jor fo­cus for Union Pa­cific,” that rail­road’s spokes­woman, Raquel Espinoza, said. “The im­prove­ment comes down to three things: ed­u­ca­tion, en­force­ment and en­gi­neer­ing.”

The Fed­eral High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion since 1987 has had a grant pro­gram largely ded­i­cated to rail­road cross­ing im­prove­ments — one that this fis­cal year will al­lo­cate $230 mil­lion to states. Texas is set to get al­most $19 mil­lion this year, ac­cord­ing to the high­way ad­min­is­tra­tion.

That Biloxi cross­ing, where a bus be­came stuck be­cause of the steeply humped shape of the street on ei­ther side of the tracks, had had 17 pre­vi­ous ve­hi­cle-train col­li­sions since 1976, in­clud­ing three in one par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent week in 1978. Two peo­ple in ve­hi­cles had been killed there, in 1983 and 2003. Last week’s ac­ci­dent caused the deaths of a Lock­hart cou­ple, a Bas­trop woman and a man from Sealy, and it left 35 oth­ers in the hos­pi­tal with a range of in­juries.

Cen­tral Texas has 11 rail cross­ings, in­clud­ing five in Tay­lor, marked with the “low road clear­ance” signs that warn of a po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic sit­u­a­tion for trac­tor-trail­ers and buses be­cause of a humped cross­ing. But none ap­pear to have been the site of nu­mer­ous col­li­sions. Some had no ve­hi­cle-train wrecks in the four decades of avail­able records, and none of the ac­ci­dents that did oc­cur was fa­tal.

How­ever, the ab­sence of a low road clear­ance sign doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that the pro­file of the in­ter­sect­ing street isn’t out­side fed­eral guide­lines spec­i­fy­ing that the road shouldn’t dip more than 3 inches within 30 feet of the tracks. Fed­eral records don’t make it clear how many road-rail cross­ings in Cen­tral Texas fall out­side that stan­dard.

Of the state’s more than 11,000 at-grade cross­ings — spots with no un­der pass, mean­ing that cars and trucks must

drive over the tracks to pro­ceed — just 60 have low road clear­ance signs, ac­cord­ing to the Texas De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion. That amounts to about 1 in ev­ery 200 cross­ings.

Quiet zones are safer, too

The metro area, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral records, had sev­eral road-rail in­ter­sec­tions with a no­table num­ber of ve­hi­cle-train col­li­sions since 1975, the ear­li­est year that the ac­ci­dent re­ports can be ac­cessed on the rail­road agency site. But in each case, in­clud­ing two in South Austin and three in San Mar­cos, the ac­ci­dents all but stopped af­ter the 1990s.

West Mary Street’s cross­ing of the Union Pa­cific tracks had nine col­li­sions and two deaths be­tween 1976 and 1998, records show, but none since. A bit to the south, where busy West Ol­torf Street in­ter­sects the tracks near South La­mar Boule­vard, there were eight ve­hi­cle-train col­li­sions be­tween 1976 and 1995, with two deaths. Then, the col­li­sions ceased.

All of the Union Pa­cific cross­ings through South Austin now have ei­ther over­passes (such as at Bar­ton Springs Road, Wil­liam Cannon Drive and Slaugh­ter Lane), or con­crete me­di­ans or rows of plas­tic py­lons on the street to ei­ther side of the tracks, sig­nal­ing to an ag­gres­sive driver that he should stay put once the rail­road gates come down rather than try­ing to drive around them be­fore the train ar­rives.

Those in­stal­la­tions oc­curred over the past decade as part of a pro­gram un­der fed­eral rules: With those safety im­prove­ments in place, train en­gi­neers can re­frain from blow­ing their train horn each time they ap­proach an in­ter­sect­ing street.

When Cap­i­tal Metro be­gan its com­muter rail ser­vice in 2010 on 32 miles of track be­tween Le­an­der and down­town Austin, it in­stalled four-bar­rier gates at many of its cross­ings in East and North Austin, and in Le­an­der. That al­lowed it to in­sti­tute quiet zones, as well — a crit­i­cal pub­lic re­la­tions move be­cause the pas­sen­ger train ser­vice dur­ing the day forced the tran­sit agency and its freight con­trac­tor to run freight trains overnight.

The agency’s track as its crosses Koenig Lane, a ma­jor crosstown artery in North Austin, has been the scene of three col­li­sions since 2014, records show.

Fewer crashes in other coun­ties

In Hays County, which has just 43 at-grade cross­ings, there have been 113 ve­hi­cle-train col­li­sions since 1975. That’s a hand­ful more than Travis County, de­spite Hays hav­ing only about a third as many at-grade cross­ings. The rea­son: San Mar­cos.

Union Pa­cific tracks run through the mid­dle of town on two paths, not far from the Texas State Univer­sity cam­pus, and the long waits for pass­ing freights at the cross­ings have eter­nally frus­trated the city’s driv­ers. And for much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the trains were a clear and ever-present dan­ger.

Ve­hi­cles us­ing CM Allen Park­way had 10 col­li­sions with trains be­tween 1975 and 1995, and three deaths, but since then, there has been just one col­li­sion in 2014. Aquarena Springs Boule­vard like­wise had 10 in­ci­dents be­tween 1975 and 1993 (with one fa­tal­ity), but then no more. And Hop­kins Street, which is known as Texas 80 in some parts of its run, had 10 ve­hi­cle-train col­li­sions be­tween 1976 and 1984, in­clud­ing one in which three peo­ple died, but since then just one in 2000.

Espinoza, the Union Pa­cific spokes­woman, couldn’t say what spe­cific im­prove­ments might have been made in San Mar­cos.

Wil­liamson County, with 143 grade cross­ings, has seen more dif­fused threats, with 161 col­li­sions at more than 60 cross­ings. The most trou­ble­some: Univer­sity Av­enue/ Texas 29 in Ge­orge­town, with nine col­li­sions. Only one, how­ever, oc­curred af­ter 1996. There have been no deaths at that cross­ing.

Bas­trop County, de­spite hav­ing the most at-grade cross­ings among the four coun­ties, has seen just one death in a ve­hi­cle-train col­li­sion since 1975. The driver of that truck, killed in Au­gust 1990 on a clear af­ter­noon in Bas­trop, was hit by a Union Pa­cific freight train at a pri­vate cross­ing.

ANDY SHARP / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

A pickup crosses a rail­road track on Dolan Street in Tay­lor on Fri­day. Cen­tral Texas has fewer than a dozen so-called “hump” cross­ings sim­i­lar to the Mis­sis­sippi rail­road cross­ing that was the site of a re­cent train­bus crash in­volv­ing a group from Bas­trop in which four died.

ANDY SHARP / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

rail­road cross­ing sign in Tay­lor warns mo­torists of low ground clear­ance on the tracks.

DEB­O­RAH CANNON / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

This pri­vate cross­ing along the south­bound frontage road of MoPac Boule­vard was closed in 2016 af­ter a 32-year-old driver got stuck on the tracks in 2012 and was killed by a MetroRail train.

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