(Atkins, Arkansas – July 18, 2012)
As if two deaths within two months at the dangerous, unguarded crossing of Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Avenue Four in the small Pope County community of Atkins, AR wasn’t bad enough, the last death – which occurred July 8 when the vehicle driven by an 80-year-old grandmother, Mildred Hill, was struck by a UP train. The crossing is “protected” only by passive railroad crossbuck signs and completely lacks any form of automatic devices such as flashing lights, bells or crossing gates.
This crossing accident was the eleventh death out of 39 accidents that have occurred on railroad crossings in and around Atkins since the Federal Railroad Administration established a reporting system to track such accidents in the 1970’s. A total of 15 non-fatal injuries have been suffered during the same period of time.
The community of less than 3,000 residents has literally had it when it comes to the lack of crossing protection in the surrounding community, and Ruby Kerstens, daughter of Mildred Hill, is one person leading the charge for increased crossing safety. She wants the protection of an active warning system with lights and a crossing arm so further tragedies can be prevented. Studies have shown lights and gates can reduce accidents by up to 90%.
The railroad, however, thinks differently, and has taken action itself to block the crossing, placing wooden barriers at each approach and erecting stop and railroad crossing signs “for safety reasons”. Such action occurred without authority, as Mayor Jerry Don Barrett had only begun discussions with the Union Pacific, and had reported to the city council that UP had offered to put up crossing gates at Church Street, which currently has flashing lights and bells, if the city will allow the permanent closure of Avenue Four.
The railroad also offered to put in locked crossing swing gates at Avenue Four and give the keys to the Atkins Fire and EMS Departments. The council has taken no action and discussions continue. Meanwhile, a phone conversation between KATV-TV’s Roger Susanin and an unnamed Arkansas Highway and Transportation Dept. official indicated that the recent tragedies may lead them to put active protection at Avenue Four, but that the costs of such, estimated at a quarter of a million dollars, prevent the state agency, which administers federal funding for grade crossing safety improvement in Arkansas, from promising anything.
“That excuse doesn’t go over well with the people who’ve lost loved ones on the rails,” Susanin surmises.