TRAINS AND ABOVE GRADE CROSSING FORMULA FOR DISASTER - CITIZENS AT RISK

Publish Date: 
Saturday, February 14, 2015 - 7:45am

By By RUSS BUETTNER and EMMA G. FITZSIMMONS  NY Times
The former police chief in Elmwood Park, N.J., vividly remembers the moment 30 years ago when the gates at the railroad crossing on the edge of town lowered on the bus carrying his son and his classmates on a field trip.

Suddenly, they were trapped on the tracks, with a train bearing down.

“The fathers got out and started trying to push the rails off the bus so it could move,” the former chief, Don Ingrasselino, recalled. “We were all shouting at the bus driver to move, move. She was finally able to get out of there, but I still think about how many kids could have died that day.”

Through the decades, Mr. Ingrasselino would respond as a police officer and chief to a number of tragedies at the crossing, where Midland Avenue intersects with New Jersey Transit tracks at a sharp angle through his Bergen County town.

“It’s not even an accident waiting to happen,” said Mr. Ingrasselino, who retired in 2012. “It’s an accident that’s been happening, over and over. It’s ridiculous.”

The grade crossing is, as it turns out, among the most dangerous in the country, according to a little-known metric devised by the Federal Railroad Administration called the “accident prediction value.” The measure takes into account certain physical characteristics of crossings and recent accidents.

The Midland crossing has been the site of 29 accidents since 1975, according to the railroad agency’s data. Two people have been killed and six more injured.

The Metro-North Railroad crash last week, in which six people were killed when a train plowed into a sport-utility vehicle at a grade crossing in Westchester County, N.Y., cast renewed attention on the constantly lurking danger posed by the mixing of cars, trains and human nature at the tens of thousands of rail crossings across the country.

Over the last week, reporters for The New York Times visited the 10 crossings that the railroad administration’s accident-prediction algorithm deems the most likely sites for crashes in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — to examine their configurations and talk to people about the safety concerns.

Several factors make the mix of trains and humans in the region more dangerous than elsewhere. Commuter trains travel through densely populated areas at speeds as high as 80 miles per hour. The freight trains that dominate the tracks in other parts of the country travel much slower through towns, often just 10 m.p.h. The commuter rail lines in the region bear more trains each day than many freight train crossings elsewhere see in a month.

But some of the crossings The Times examined have problems that safety experts say can increase the chances of a collision, like roads and tracks meeting at harsh angles and traffic signals in proximity that, in heavy traffic, can contribute to drivers’ getting stuck on the tracks.

Limited U.S. Funding

The primary source of federal funding for safety improvements to grade crossings, known as the Section 130 program, is distributed to states by the Federal Highway Administration. The budget allocates $220 million annually for the entire country, which does not leave much room for major projects.

The federal transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, cited the lack of funding at a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

“Are there ways that we can grade separate to avoid those types of conflicts altogether?” Mr. Foxx said. “The fact of the matter is there is not enough money in the system to help us do that, even on some of the highest danger areas.”

Thousands of grade crossings nationwide have been eliminated in the last 30 years. In New York State, there are now 2,677 public at-grade crossings, almost 600 fewer than 20 years ago, but the pace of change has slowed in recent years.

Lesser changes can make a difference. In 2010, a commuter stepped from a New Jersey Transit train in Ramsey, and as he walked around the train was struck and killed by another train going the opposite direction. The railroad installed fencing that makes doing that now very difficult, and a crosswalk that caused cars to stop on the tracks was removed. There have not been any pedestrian collisions since.

Even so, the crossing still has among the highest accident prediction values in the region. The most recent crash at the crossing, which is on Main Street, was in 2012, when a train moving 70 m.p.h. slammed into an S.U.V. that was stuck on the tracks. A woman and her child had fled the vehicle just in time and were not injured.

Railroad safety experts say driver behavior is a major factor in crashes, but design factors can also contribute. A well-designed crossing will take into consideration that drivers need time to react, said Rick Campbell, president of CTC Inc., which consults on grade-crossing safety.

This week, Mr. Ingrasselino, the former police chief, was pointing out to a visitor some of the factors that made the crossing in Elmwood Park so dangerous, when a tractor-trailer edged forward as the security gate rose. Then the gate started to lower again, coming down on the hood of the truck. (Safety experts say drivers should get out of their vehicle if they are stuck on the tracks or simply break through the gates.)

Not long afterward, a BMW in a line of traffic got stuck on the wrong side of the gate.

“Happens all day here,” Mr. Ingrasselino said.

The crossing is a tangle of intersections, with side streets a few yards from the tracks on both sides joining Midland Avenue. The angle at which Midland approaches the crossing, compounded by the rise of the roadway near the tracks, severely restricts drivers’ lines of sight. Because of the way the crossing is configured, the danger zone — the distance from one gate to the other — is several car lengths.

A pedestrian was killed trying to get across in 2000. Other accidents involved cars and trucks getting boxed in by traffic and then stuck on the tracks. A bicyclist was killed in 2006 when he stopped too close to the tracks and a train clipped his bike.

New Jersey Transit last year reduced the speed limit for trains at the crossing to 50 m.p.h., from 70, and is reviewing plans to install more advanced warning lights there, a spokeswoman said. The railroad also plans to paint “don’t block the box” stripping at the crossing this summer.

Richard A. Mola, who has been the mayor of Elmwood Park for 44 years, said that the state periodically talked about making changes, but that the remedies were usually minor.

“That one has been the worst forever, forever,” Mayor Mola said. “If you’re going to make major changes it would be an overpass. I don’t know when or if that will ever happen.”

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