(Halifax, Pennsylvania – September 28, 2016)
Referring to a fatal rail crossing situation where a local 29-year-old wife and mother was killed in a tragic Labor Day accident at a crossing, a PennLive (Pennsylvania Media Group) news writer has delved into the tragic history of crossing safety neglect by both the state and the railroad. Demonstrating their mutual histories of choosing the cheaper, rather than the safer option of a private crossing maintained as public access to a public recreational site.
Christine Vendel, a writer for the Harrisburg, PA-based news group, delved into histories of responsibility denial and refusal or delay to produce a safer intersection. She contacted the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, as well as interviewed railroad safety experts and Pottroff & Karlin, LLC attorneys as she attempted to shine a brighter spotlight upon the neglect which cost the life of the mother of a 3-month-old baby and left Trisha Hoffman’s husband, Cory, of Halifax, PA a grieving widower.
The Fish and Boat Commission took the drastic move of shutting off access to its Susquehanna River-side boat launch ramp on Susquehanna Trail Road just off Highway 147 by closing the deadly, dangerous and unguarded crossing Monday in order “to evaluate the intersection and the railroad crossing” which experts have deemed to have “serious deficiencies.”
“More than 30 years ago, a civil engineer with the railroad company recommended automatic flashing lights at the crossing to account for a wooded area that blocked drivers’ view of oncoming trains,” wrote Ms. Vendel after her utilization of the “Right To Know” requirement of public agencies and officials through study of Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission hearing transcripts for several decades.
“But the Fish Commission, which was petitioning for the improved crossing so it could build the boat ramp, rejected the $60,000 flashers,” Reporter Vendel learned, “as unnecessary and too expensive.”
But apparently as consolation, the Fish Commission offered to clear brush and tree growth and install passive railroad cross-buck and highway stop signs, but the signs were installed incorrectly, if at all, and the brush/tree trimming was rarely, if ever, repeated after an initial effort in the 1970’s or 1980’s.
Conrail, the owner of the rail line at the time (Norfolk Southern later acquired the rail line after ConRail’s dissolution), civil engineer Paul Jefferis, Jr. foresaw the maintenance problems presented by one-shot brush trimming and sign placement as major parts of the situation when he recommended flashing lights for the crossing three decades ago. “The limits (of the trees to be cut back) are not shown or who would be responsible to maintain the clearing of this area,” criticized Jefferis of the plan.
“It’s unclear if the stop sign was ever erected,” observed the PennLive reporter, who added that, once trimmed, “but they grew back and currently hug both the access road and tracks, severely limiting drivers’ sight lines to the tracks.”
Talking with two professionals, a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University and an attorney at Pottroff & Karlin, LLC, Vendel got present perspectives on past and current sight distance problems.
“The sight distance at the crossing for vehicles leaving the boat ramp is seriously deficient,” said Professor Emeritus Ronald Eck of WVU.
Fully agreeing was attorney Nathan Karlin of the Pottroff Law Firm, who told Vendel that “Even if she did everything perfectly, this accident might still have happened because of the sight distance.”
The railroad also failed to recognize the serious vulnerability that motorists face at intersections of road and rail intersections like the CSX/Susquehanna Trail Drive crossing. “The railroad had numerous opportunities to identify deficiencies at the crossing over the years,” Karlin told Vendel, adding that “This lady had one opportunity.”
There were multiple opportunities over the years for the railroad to identify clear deficiencies with the crossing. “2-person train crews were passing by this crossing at least four times a day, and that’s not counting crossing inspectors and public safety managers. How many people went over there and never identified any problems? That’s the tragedy!”