(Longmeadow, Massachusetts – March 14, 2017)
As winter storm Stella dumped massive amounts of snow on New England, pathway plowing activities by both road and rail authorities met in a tragic accident. The collision occurred at the dangerous, unguarded and long-obscured Longmeadow, MA grade crossing of Amtrak rails and Birney road. The collision involved an Amtrak plow train and a Longmeadow Dept. of Public Works snowplow which led to the tragic death of 29-year DPW employee Warren Cowles, 59, Tuesday afternoon at about 4:00 P.M., EDT.
Federal Railroad Administration documents reveal that not only was the Birnie road crossing heavily obscured, but that the DPW plow driver was the fifth fatality suffered in six accidents occurring at the road/rail intersection. Regardless, “There are no gate arms, lights or other traffic signals on Birnie Road to stop vehicles from passing over the tracks or warn of an oncoming train,” observed The Republic’s Greg Saulmon on Massachusetts Live. It is virtually certain that if this crossing was equipped with signals, such as lights and gates, this collision would not have happened. Both Amtrak and Operation Lifesaver know that lights and gates are the most effective type of protection at railroad crossings. Studies that have been conducted over fifty years ago confirm that lights and gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
Saulmon further reported that “Records list the crossing as public 1n 1975, but as private on accident reports from 1981 to 1983. The 2005 report again lists the crossing as public.” Under FRA regulations, train crews are not required to sound the locomotive’s horn as they approach crossings designated as private, so the question remains as to what status the crossing was designated as at the time of Tuesday’s tragedy. However, state law may still require horns to be blown at all crossings.
Longmeadow Town Manager Stephen J. Crane said that the victim was struck by a northbound train (which, according to an Amtrak spokesman’s report on WWLP-TV, was plowing the NRPC tracks itself, as the weather had caused cancellation of regular NRPC Amtrak service) as he plowed Birnie Road. Birnie Road was described as “a public way that runs through a wooded area off Pondside Road before connecting to West and Dunn Roads, where several homes are located along he Connecticut River.”
Crane emotionally remarked that the tragedy hit his department “hard”, and that “We’re not a big group, so it hits home for us.”
The Town Manager further commented that “The weather (heavy snow and wind from the winter storm), I’m sure, was a factor.”
But Saulmon’s research revealed that in the FRA reports’ descriptive sections’ comments, both the 1975 and 2005 reports indicated that vegetation had obscured the motor vehicle operators’ sight distance of the tracks. Such condition was also visibly present in recently-observed satellite views of the double track crossing, which handles as many as 17 trains of both New England Central freight and Amtrak passenger trains daily at a maximum allowable speed of 70 mph. It was estimated that Tuesday’s train travelled “several hundred yards” before finally coming to a halt.