(Monroe Township, Pennsylvania – September 12, 2013)
A semi-trailer truck combination carrying a highway bridge beam to Gettysburg, PA became stuck at the questionably-designed railroad crossing of Pennsylvania State Highway 74 (York Road) and Norfolk Southern railroad tracks in Monroe Township, Cumberland County, PA Thursday afternoon about 1:40 P.M. The Truck was be struck and destroyed by a NS freight train, which itself suffered an injury to the locomotive engineer as it derailed three locomotives and four intermodal “well” cars carrying 18 shipping containers, each the size of an 18-wheeler, bound for Atlanta, GA.
The truck, carrying a 131-foot-long pre-stressed concrete and rebar bridge beam weighing 73 tons, was being escorted across the Route 74/York Road/NS crossing, which takes an unusual curve, almost a z-shape design, and is slightly humped, making moves such as Thursday’s extremely difficult to negotiate.
The crossing is equipped with full protective devices (flashing lights, bells and crossing gates), but has no sign indicating the possibility of loads like the one attempting to cross Thursday becoming stuck on the tracks or going through the highway’s curvature maze.
Thursday’s accident, which witnesses say looked like a scene out of a movie when it virtually exploded upon impact by the train, could have been far worse, as other vehicles were stopped at the crossing awaiting the passage of the truck and its large load. Sheri Weaver of New Oxford, PA and her sister-in-law, Brenda Chestnut of Wellsville, PA were headed home to New Oxford, PA after a shopping trip to Carlisle, PA and were directly behind the truck.
“The next thing we knew, the lights started blinking red,” Weaver told Patriot News/PennLive Reporter Nick Malawskey. “We had nowhere to go – we were boxed in,” she explained. “The arms went down, the train blew the whistle, and then he hit,” Weaver continued. “I’ve never seen anything so violent happen so fast. It was horrendous,” she concluded.
The beam “just exploded”, witness Deborah Ealer recalled to Malawskey. “There were huge chunks that flew. It just disintegrated,” she said, recalling that the safety escort had already crossed the railroad tracks, but that the driver, Robert Esposti, who was operating the truck for Harris Camden Terminal Company of New Jersey, had to back up and reposition the vehicle in order to make the turn.
Esposti told Channel 27 news that law enforcement involvement is required in the transport of “super loads”, and thus he was being guided by both an escort vehicle and a Pennsylvania State Trooper.
Bill Reed of Watsonville, PA was providing “spotting” escort assistance for the truck driver, and described the move as the trucker attempted to cross the tracks. “We had just come up there onto the tracks to make that left and we weren’t going to make it with that arm that came over the track,” said Reed. “So we backed up to give it a second try and then the arm came down, the lights came on, and ‘Pow!’, it hit!”
Pennsylvania State Trooper Adam Reed (no relation) said that incidents such as occurred Thursday are not uncommon, but he was unaware of any previous incidents at the crossing. “Occasionally, you do see it, unfortunately,” Trooper Reed explained. “Railway crossings can be tricky for large trucks like that.”
The factor of curvature was far more a factor than the low ground clearance, and Thursday was not the first time such an accident has occurred at that particular crossing. In 1997, a pickup truck hauling a long trailer became stuck on the crossing, and was hit by a CSX freight train, according to a report issued by the FRA.
The FRA also listed the top allowable speed for the nearly a dozen trains that cross there on a daily basis as 40 mph. Yet, officials on the scene were reporting that the speed limit is 50 mph, but would not confirm how fast Thursday’s train was traveling.
The roadway was finally re-opened late Friday, but support work was still being conducted in salvaging what could be gleaned from the derailed containers, and thus traffic was far from normal.