(Pillager, Minnesota – June 7, 2015)
A Sunday drive for a Pillager, MN couple ended abruptly and nearly tragically at about 5:20 P.M. as the couple drove northbound on the winding and intersecting West Gulf River Road and encountered an eastbound Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train consisting of a locomotive and nine cars at the dangerous and unguarded intersection of the two transportation modes (road and rail) in Cass County, near Pillager, and just west of Baxter, MN.
Donald Bolster, 86, and his wife, Mary, 85, were both transported to Essentia Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, MN, with painful injuries after their 2005 Mercury Grand Marquis was struck by the train just behind the car’s driver’s seat, spun around and flung into a trackside drainage ditch. “If it (the collision) would have been 5 or 6 feet farther (forward) on the car, it would have been a whole different story,” Pillager Fire Dept. Chief Randy Lee told a television audience.
The Brainerd Dispatch pointed out that the crossing “does not have acting warning devices of stop arms and lights,” a situation the fire chief reiterated in the TV interview. It is virtually certain that if equipped with lights and gates this accident would not have happened. Both BNSF 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%.
Fargo, ND TV station WDAZ, ABC News Channel 8, reporter Renee Richardson, who interviewed Chief Lee, learned that “the force of the collision emptied the Mercury’s trunk and back seat, sending household goods and debris across the area, including everything from a vacuum to canned goods.”
West Gulf River Road ends at its intersection with Minnesota Highway 210 just a few feet north of the railroad crossing, and winds through the area, intersecting with a road which leads directly to and just a short distance south of the crossing.
According to Federal Railroad Administration documents, the unguarded crossing accommodates a half a dozen BNSF trains daily at a maximum allowable speed of 49 mph. But also according to FRA records, Sunday afternoon’s collision was not the only crash event to occur there, as a motorist was killed at the same location in 1993 when a 114-car BNSF train being pulled by a pair of locomotives traveling at 47 mph struck his vehicle.