(Houston, Texas – February 11, 2014)
Discovering that Texas has more railroad grade crossing accidents than any other state, and that Harris County suffers more train/highway vehicle crashes than any other Texas county, Houston’s KHOU-TV, Channel 11 sent its News I-Team after railroad and state officials to determine why more emphasis is not being focused upon railroad crossing safety improvement in Texas’ largest city.
Led by investigative reporter Scott Noll, KHOU-TV said that “despite state and county studies of the problem, victims and locals complain that officials have been slow to improve safety at some of the worst crossings” in a report shown Tuesday.
Interviewing victims or their survivors, KHOU talked to Donald Moyers, who lives near railroad tracks in Baytown, in the eastern portion of Harris County. Six years ago, he lost two of his granddaughters, Macy, 14, and Loral, 12, when the SUV in which they were riding collided with a train at a crossing near Moyers’ house. The crossing was “unprotected”, meaning it lacked any form of active warning systems such as flashing lights, bells or crossing gates.
In his grief, Moyers has penned poetry to help describe his sorrow:
“People like us are different, you know? People like us watch other kids grow.”
The grieving grandfather says that “You have to experience something like this to truly realize the impact of what a problem we have out there.”
For example, says KHOU’s Noll, “Federal figures show that in the last five years, Texas had nearly 850 crossing crashes. Of those, 170 occurred in the Houston area.” Noll further cites the fact that the Harris County crossing with the most notoriety is the intersection of Mykawa Road and Long street in southeast Houston, where there have been eight car/train accidents in the same five-year period.
“That’s just ridiculous,” says crossing user Patrick Williams. “I mean somebody, whoever has the authority to really do something about it, should actually come out here and see for themselves.”
“What they would see are four different rail crossings along with three intersecting roads,” notes Noll of the maze of road/rail intersections that frustrate drivers daily. "It’s too much. It’s really too much,” complains Janet Davis, another frequent crosser of the complex crossing challenge.
Noll talked to railroad expert Gus Ubaldi of the Robson Forensic engineering firm, who refers to the intersection as a “nightmare”, and who said that “Mykawa is number one in the state for accidents. So right there, someone would be wanting to say we should be doing something at this crossing.”
“Ten years ago that was nearly the statement of a 2004 report commissioned by Harris County,” says Noll of a recommendation that the county eliminate the crossings at Griggs, Mykawa and Long, replacing them with under and overpasses. And during the decade since the report came out, there have been 27 more collisions at the targeted intersections while no action has been taken on the suggested solution. All three roads cross Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks, over which Union Pacific trains also operate.
TXDOT claims it is working with the city of Houston, but there is no money to build the system of bridges which would allow safe, grade-separated routes for both modes of transportation. The cost in 2004 was estimated at $58 million.
Ubaldi doesn’t buy the TXDOT excuses, noting that “My estimate is that TXDOT has a budget of $8-10 billion. That’s with a ‘B’ dollars a year. $60 million dollars then is pretty much a rounding issue.”
According to Noll, “For weeks, the I-team requested an interview with TXDOT. However, the agency said that no one was available at that time. Instead, TXDOT issued a statement saying ‘Safety is our top priority and as such, we have been planning to make improvements at these intersections for a while.’”
According to earlier information, those “improvements” translate into the additions of gates and timing traffic signals. Amazingly, the three crossings in question have been the sites of 49 collisions between trains and highway vehicles since the Federal Railroad Administration instituted a reporting system in the early 1970’s. Yet, not one of the three has the complete package of active crossing protection: all three lack crossing gates!
But people who live in the area are skeptical of political promises. “Actions speak for itself,” observed Garry Potter. But his friend, Jamaal Tutson, explained it this way: “Actions speak louder than words – we ain’t seen no action!”
And Donald Moyers worries that “with the Houston area being home to eight of Texas’ most crash-prone crossings, doing nothing could prove deadly.”
“We do have to start protecting our friends, our neighbors, ourselves,” he told KHOU’s Noll.