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Gambling With Life at The €Low Ground Clearance€ Railroad Crossing: A Study In Governmental/Corporate Irresponsibility

As 18-wheeler driver David Zimmer, 68, of Saugerties, NY drove along Portage Road in Leoni Township, Michigan about 8:15 A.M. the morning of February 2, 2012, he approached the railroad grade crossing of Norfolk Southern tracks, intending to pull his low-boy trailer loaded with oil industry equipment across the lighted, gated crossing. No train was in sight, and wanting to ensure his ability to clear the crossing, the trucker inched forward and stopped to determine the trailer€’s clearance. Before he could complete the task, he heard the warning bells of the crossing activate and hurriedly mounted his tractor and began pulling the load to safety. His trailer lodged on the tracks and his attempts to free it before the Amtrak train arrived at the crossing were in vain. The train was travelling in 79 mph territory carrying 71 passengers and a crew of five when it barreled through the crossing.

The Chicago-bound train hit and severely damaged the semi and its load, derailed one locomotive and the first two cars, and injured 10 people, including Zimmer. Once he was released from the hospital the next day, Zimmer was cited by Blackman-Leoni Dept. of Public Safety officers for attempting to cross railroad tracks where there was insufficient clearance for his vehicle.[1]

Only a few days later, February 6 about 4:00 P.M., at the crossing of Loudermilk Drive and CSX railroad tracks in Marietta, Georgia a semi-trailer truck driver for Blaze Recycling found his truck, loaded with scrap metal, hung up on the railroad crossing, one which an eyewitness said experienced €œa half-dozen similar crashes in the last 12 years,€ only to have a CSX freight train, traveling at 30 mph, arrive while the driver and a volunteer were attempting to free the truck from the rails. The train struck and virtually destroyed the tractor and its trailer, which had become stuck on the rails due to increased and uneven elevation of the crossing surface, injuring the three CSX crew members in the cab of the locomotive. While neither the recycling company nor the railroad would comment on the crash, David Summey, the operator of a nearby construction firm, expressed his concerns about the railroad crossing, saying €”Someone needs to look at it, and look at the elevations on the road and they could raise the road up or lower the tracks so it would not be a danger.€” The truck driver was not cited by Marietta Police. [2]

The next day, February 7, in West Knoxville, Tennessee Thomas Bolden, 49, of New Market, Tennessee was hauling an earthmover aboard his 18-wheeler when he became stuck on CSX railroad tracks as he attempted to cross the tracks at the Jackson Road crossing. Within moments, a 33-car eastbound CSX freight train appeared, and the driver abandoned the disabled vehicle as the crossing lights came on and the gates descended. No one was injured, but property damage of the truck, its Caterpillar tractor load and the train amounted to a significant total.

  • €He wasn€’t trying to beat the train,€ said Knoxville Fire Dept. Spokesman Capt. D.J. Corcoran.
  • €He just got stuck there on the tracks.€

Knoxville Police Spokesman Darrell DeBusk confirmed that no charges would be filed against the driver.[3]

Three serious, similar accidents in less than a week must indicate some greater epidemic. Incredibly, the cure for this problem has existed for years in the form of cooperation and communication between railroad and government road authorities as well as a strict adherence to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) recommendations on €Low Ground Clearance signage. The commonality of the three potentially-catastrophic accidents, as well as dozens of others nationwide annually was that not one crossing approach was equipped with the appropriate MUTCD sign intended as a forewarning to truck drivers with low-hanging loads to avoid the crossings altogether.

The three incidents also demonstrated low or nonexistent levels of collaboration on maintenance programs conducted by the railroads and the state, county, township or city road and highway governing agencies.

In the case of the Michigan Amtrak collision, the Norfolk Southern, in maintaining tracks qualifying for Class 4 Federal Railroad Administration high speed standards had been well-manicured, while the asphalt surfaces of the Leoni Township/Jackson County-administered Portage Road had seen no upgrading of signage or lessening of the degree of road-to-track angle.

Improved mechanized railroad maintenance practices, utilizing laser-equipped track liners, tampers and ballast regulators, allow track surfaces to be raised gradually, building upon the older ballast. This gradual raising increases the incline of a motorist or trucker€™s approach with each subsequent resurfacing. As rail lines receive regular upgrades the crossing itself becomes UPGRADED until the gradient becomes a hazard to low-slung vehicles. Meanwhile, the governing authorities do nothing with their portions of the crossing approaches for which they are responsible, and the railroad crossing crews add an increase of incline in the portion of the crossing under their jurisdiction.

With regard to the Michigan crossing, The crossing had every sign and safety device required by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,€ said Ken Straub, the managing director of the Jackson County Road Commission. Some crossings in some states require warning of humped crossings. Michigan does not, according to A Compilation of State Laws and Regulations, published in 2009 by the Federal Railroad Administration.€[4]

Yet the Michigan DOT Guidelines for Highway-Railroad Grade Crossings, 2009 edition, clearly states:

If highway profile conditions are sufficiently abrupt to create a potential hang-up situation for long wheelbase vehicles or for trailers with low ground clearance, the Low Ground Clearance Highway-Railroad Grade Crossing (W10-5) sign should be installed in advance of a highway-railroad grade crossing. Because this symbol might not be readily recognizable by the public, the Low Ground Clearance Highway-Railroad Grade Crossing warning sign shall be accompanied by an educational plaque, with the text €”LOW GROUND CLEARANCE.”€ The educational plaque shall remain in place for at least three years after the initial installation of the W10-5 sign.[5]

In publishing the guidelines, Bureau Director Rob Abent of the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics and Freight Services said in a cover letter:

These guidelines are a compilation of relevant information, specifications and standards to be referenced when making determinations regarding public highway-railroad grade crossings. [€¦] This document has been prepared, reviewed and published in accordance with appropriate State of Michigan and Michigan Department of Transportation rules for dissemination of public information.[6]

The wording of Michigan DOT€’s publication is identical to the Federal Highway Administration€’s MUTCD, with the exception of the addition of Guidance in regard to the previous statute: €Auxiliary plaques such as AHEAD, NEXT CROSSING, USE NEXT CROSSING (with appropriate arrows), or a supplemental distance plaque should be placed below the W10-5 sign at the nearest intersecting highway where a vehicle can detour or at a point on the highway wide enough to permit a U-turn.€[7]

In 1991, the Transportation Research Board, one of the six major divisions of the National Research Council, a private, non-profit institution that is the principal operating agency of the National Academies in providing services to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities, published Low-Clearance Vehicles At Rail-Highway Crossings, An Overview Of The Problem And Potential Solutions. That article stated that no readily available highway design standards aimed at providing adequate ground clearance at rail-highway grade crossings that have humplike profiles. As a result, low-clearance vehicles can become lodged or hung up at a crossing. Solutions to this problem include specifying crossing physical characteristics and developing advance warning signs.[8]

On March 31, 2003, the Virginia Department of Transportation€’s Mobility Management Division issued a memorandum explaining the state€’s intended compliance with the use of the MUTCD€’s W10-5 Low Ground Clearance Warning signs. The edict, issued by Raymond Khoury, P.E., and addressed to all District Administrators, said, in part: €Based on warrant criteria for the installation of these signs, as developed by Mobility Management Division€™s Highway/Rail Safety Section and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, crossings have been identified and a listing of these crossings has been provided to the District Traffic Engineers as well as the Resident Engineers, so that signs may be installed as appropriate. Mobility Management Division€’s Highway/Rail Safety Section will maintain the listing, adding or removing locations as appropriate, and will notify the District Traffic Engineer and/or the Resident Engineer when changes occur.€[9]

The memorandum did not ignore crossing situations which might not be under VDOT maintenance by including all crossings identified as having abrupt profile conditions that could create a hang-up condition located within municipalities where the Department is not responsible.[10]

The focus of the VDOT memorandum came in the requirement that €œIt shall be encumbered on the Resident Engineer to inform the Highway-rail Safety Section of work being accomplished that may affect the need for these signs. This includes, to the extent possible, reporting work performed by or for the railroad company. It is recognized that railroad companies will perform work at crossings without advising this agency. Therefore, all Residency and District personnel should be instructed to notify the Resident Engineer when it is noted that the railroad is performing work at a highway rail grade crossing.€ [11] This lack of communication between local road authority and the railroads is an attempt to insulate the railroad from liability when they raise a crossing.

Florida, a state whose populace and politicians have given an even more open-armed embrace to high-speed (79 mph maximum) commuter trains, took a major step in 2006 with a project to design new guidelines (revising a 1984 document) for railroad grade crossing profiles in The Sunshine State:

The goal of this research is to investigate the degree to which low clearance vehicles experience problems on highway-railroad grade crossings and develop appropriate design guidelines,€ read the Florida DOT€’s statement of objectives. [12]

While the project€™s objectives included creation of simple computer tools €œfor roadway designers, inspectors, railroad flagmen, and other appropriate audiences to evaluate existing highway railroad grade crossings for potential hang-up problems, i.e., to model the profile of sample grade crossings and develop procedures and tools that can be used to check whether a given class of vehicle can safely traverse a high-profile grade crossing.€[13] Through this project, the research team €œdeveloped some basic geometric design criteria with a methodology for evaluating highway-railroad grade crossings, which include vertical crest and sag curves that can be used to prevent the hang-up of low clearance vehicles based on the required approach tangents and the existing slope of the railway tracks plane.€[14]

But as in Virginia, the Florida DOT placed a major responsibility on its staff to watch for railroad maintenance activities which could result in raising the track level as well as the degree of vehicular approach.

€œAn overall review of hump crossings in Florida indicated that many of the critical crossings, in terms of potential hang-up by low clearance vehicles, are located near roadway intersections or a roadway curve and showed evidence of some rail maintenance resulting in asphalt buildup on the tracks.€[15]

Finally, back in Michigan, where the truck driver received a ticket basically for the county€’s failure to place a warning sign, the opinion of Mike Jester, Blackman-Leoni Public Safety Director, in regard to the February 2 derailment was amazing. To be honest with you, I think we got lucky,€ he told Jackson Citizen-Patriot Writer Aaron Aupperlee.[16]

Luck involves gambling, and gambling is for casinos €“ not human life!

Railroad and governmental denial of responsibility is like rolling the dice at low ground clearance crossings, with the driving public as the stakes!

[1] MLIVE News, Jackson, MI, 02/03/12

[2] MyFox Atlanta, 02/06/12

[3] Knoxnews.com, 02/07/12

[4] Aaron Aupperlee, MLIVE.com News, Jackson, MI

[5] Michigan DOT Guidelines for Highway-Railroad Grade Crossings, 2009 Edition, p.8

[6] Ibid, p. 1

[7] Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices, FHWA, part 8, part 8b, pp. 9-10

[8] Transportation Research Record No. 1327, Visibility, Rail-Highway Grade Crossings and Highway Improvement Evaluation, 1991, The Transportation Research Board, Washington, DC.

[9] Raymond J. Khoury, P.E., Virginia Dept. of Trans. Letter of 03/31/03

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12] €œDesign Guidelines for Highway Railroad Grade Crossing Profiles in Florida, Summary of Final Report, BC352-15, Florida Dept. of Trans., July, 2006

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Jackson Citizen-Patriot, €œIn The Margins€ Opinion Feature, 02/08/12

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