Publish Date: 
Friday, February 6, 2015 - 8:30am

New York Times

Railroad crossings, with their flashing lights and descending gates, are a fixture of suburban living. The hundreds of crossings along commuter rail lines in New York and New Jersey can be a nuisance for drivers whose journeys are being interrupted, but they are also something to be feared, crossroads that can easily turn dangerous.

Accidents at railroad crossings happen with surprising regularity in the region. Since 2003, there have been 125 grade-crossing accidents on New Jersey Transit lines, 105 on the Long Island Rail Road and 30 on Metro-North Railroad, according to the latest available Federal Railroad Administration data. More than half of those 260 accidents resulted in injuries or deaths. In all, 73 people were killed and 148 injured.

Nationally, the numbers of accidents and fatalities at rail crossings have fallen steadily, as grade crossings have been eliminated and safety improvements made, according to safety groups. There were 3,085 such accidents across the country that killed 371 people in 2004. Those figures dropped to 2,096 accidents that killed 288 people in 2013.

But grade-crossing accidents on the three major commuter rail lines in the New York region do not appear to have declined as steadily. There were 26 in 2004. The figure dropped slightly for several years before rising to 28 in 2013. (Both the national and New York-region statistics include some suicides, which the railroad administration began identifying separately in 2011.)

The crossing where the fatal Metro-North crash on Tuesday took place is on a bend in a quiet road, Commerce Street, which snakes through a cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y. Notably, the crossing is less than 200 feet from the busy Taconic State Parkway. With a traffic light at the intersection, for cars heading east toward the parkway, as the driver in the crash was doing, there is only space for a few vehicles on the roadway before traffic becomes backed up, potentially into the crossing.

Commerce Street was busier than usual on Tuesday night because of an accident on the parkway, said Alex Athanasatos, the owner of Valhalla Deli, who was driving four or five cars behind the woman who was struck by the train.

“There was so much traffic, people started cutting through the cemetery,” he said.

Augustine F. Ubaldi, a railroad engineering expert who is not involved in the official inquiry, said investigators would examine, among other factors, whether the crossing was properly synchronized with the traffic light to keep traffic moving. Although the line of sight at the crossing was not ideal because of the curve in the road, he said the lights and the gate were sufficient to make it clear that a train was coming.

Mr. Ubaldi said he was more concerned with finding out why the woman stopped on the tracks. In such a situation, he said riders should break through the gates if necessary.

“The gates are designed to break,” he said. “If you get stuck at the crossing, floor it. Smash the gate. It’s a far less severe consequence than staying on the crossing.”

The crossing where the accident occurred on Tuesday, however, has long been a serious concern for some drivers in the area.

Lance Sexton, 31, an electronic equipment assembler who commutes to Valhalla from Manhattan, said he was venting just last week with co-workers about the railroad crossings in Valhalla. He said he worried about how quickly the trains pass after the gates come down. But they all agreed that the Commerce Street crossing was particularly dangerous.

“We know that coming down the hill of the cemetery, you have to put the brakes on earlier,” he said. “There’s a bank there that always collects water, making it even more dangerous.” As for the driver who found herself on the tracks there, Mr. Sexton said: “It happens, man. It happens.”

The last accident that took place at the crossing occurred in 1984, according to the railroad administration’s data. A Metro-North train struck a truck, also at the height of the evening rush, killing the 21-year-old driver, Gerard Dunne, a new father who had been responding to a call for work, his sister Barbara Kehoe said.

There were no gates at the crossing at the time, she said. He was unfamiliar with the crossing, and with foliage obscuring his view, he did not see the train coming. He died three weeks later.

“It was very eerie last night hearing about the crash,” she said. “It kind of brings it back. I immediately think of all these families, and it’s just tragic.”

Ms. Kehoe, 46, who lives in Stony Point, N.Y., said her brother and his wife had a 6-month-old baby at the time of the crash. The gates were put in at the crossing in response to her brother’s death. A lawsuit was filed, but Ms. Kehoe said she could not discuss the specifics without talking to the rest of her family.

On Tuesday night, she said, she wondered right away whether the crossing was any safer now.

“How safe is that crossing — for this to happen again?” she said.

Since 2003, the most accidents at a single Metro-North grade crossing is five, at the Riverbend Drive South crossing in Stamford, Conn., on the New Canaan branch of the New Haven line, according to the railroad administration data. No one died in those five crashes, but four people were injured.

Even at crossings where lights flash and gates are dropped, as they did on Tuesday night, there are frequently collisions. About half of all collisions at grade crossings happen when warning devices are in place, according to the railroad administration.

Metro-North has 126 grade crossings, Long Island Rail Road has 294, and New Jersey Transit has 330, according to the transit agencies.

In an interview on NY1 on Wednesday morning, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that eliminating all grade crossings would be prohibitively costly. “In theory it’s a nice idea,” he said. “In practicality, do we have the money, do we have the time? And is it one of the top priority safety projects? I would say no.”

But Joyce Rose, president of Operation Lifesaver, a rail safety education group, pointed out that even with the decrease in accidents nationally at grade crossings, “every three hours, a person or a vehicle is hit by a train.”