(Lakeland, Florida – December 8, 2014)
What appears to be a pattern of accidents, many of them involving Amtrak passenger trains operating at speeds as high as 79 mph, at the County Line Road crossing of CSX railroad tracks in Lakeland, FL has attracted the attention of a St. Petersburg/Tampa, FL television station’s investigative news team after a tenth collision at the intersection involving tractor trailer trucks that occurred in the early afternoon of Saturday, December 6, 2014.
WTSP-TV, Channel 10’s Tammie Fields of the “10 Investigates” team was on the scene of Saturday’s accident Monday, and interviewed people familiar with the crossing’s sordid history who were more than willing to share their views and experiences with the reporter.”There’s a lot of questions about the timing of the crossing signals and whether or not it’s (the crossing) safe,” Fields reported. “Some drivers tell us the warning comes too late for them to make it across,” she added.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the crossing has been the site of 13 collisions between trains and highway vehicles since the FRA began keeping records of such events in the early 1970’s, and 10 of those accidents have involved semi-trailer trucks which were caught in the limbo of railroad crossing lights and gates which preempt the traffic lights at County Line Road and U.S. Highway 92, which parallels the CSX tracks that accommodate a daily average of 14 CSX freight and Amtrak passenger trains.
Allegedly so poorly timed are the “simultaneous preemption” settings of the traffic lights, which go to red as an approaching train triggers the crossing lights, that semi-trailer trucks are “sitting ducks” with no way of escape as the trains bear down upon them. Miraculously, there have been no fatal injuries suffered in the collisions, but nearby residents like Michael Kribbs feel that it is only a matter of time before tragedy strikes.
“I know of at least three Amtrak wrecks involved with 18-wheelers right there at the same spot,” Kribbs told the WTSP-TV investigator. “I saw the back end of the 18-wheeler just torn in half,” he said of the 1:00 P.M. Saturday accident. “It hit so hard tomatoes went flying for hundreds of feet,” he recalled.
Officers from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office say that truck driver John Smith of New Jersey told them that he was able to travel just a short distance before the green light turned to red and he was left stranded in front of the Orlando-bound Amtrak train with 95 passengers on board. The officers issued the hapless truck driver a ticket regardless of his explanation of the situation.
Kribbs backed up the trucker’s story, saying that he understood that the traffic light “was green when he started to go and two seconds later, it turned red.”
Because CSX has the responsibility for maintenance of the signals, 10 News contacted Kristin Seay of the railroad’s corporate communications department, and asked her about the timing of the crossing’s signals. Seay’s response was right out of the railroad play book, as she answered “That will be part of the investigation,” but quickly bridged to the standard saw of “Anytime an incident occurs, we look at three things. We look at the track, we look at the equipment, meaning the locomotive and the rail cars, and how the train was being operated.”
But Michael Kribbs isn’t convinced. “It could be a very big catastrophe if it doesn’t get fixed,” he said of the signal situation.