(Washington County, Tennessee – June 4, 2012)
School bus driver John Larney worries every time he must risk the lives of the 54 high school students he hauls across Norfolk Southern railroad tracks at Woodlyn Road twice each school day in Washington County, TN.
“The way the road is positioned you can’t see if there’s anything coming, and it’s like a game of roulette – it’s chance! You stop, you listen. If the timing’s wrong, you’re going to have a serious accident,” attests the veteran school bus driver.
Now that school is out for the summer, Larney can relax for a few months. But things won’t be any better by the time school re-opens this fall.
The Woodlyn Road/NS RY intersection not only lacks any form of automatic train approach warnings, having only passive railroad crossbucks and highway stop signs for “protection”, but is further hampered through the existence of terrain and vegetation hazards that make any train impossible to see far enough away to allow safe passage for a vehicle like a school bus, which law requires drivers to stop at any rail crossing, and to proceed across at the lowest forward gear. Yet, neither the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation nor Norfolk Southern Railway seems to see any reason to expedite already-approved automatic protective signalization. Instead, all involved are playing the red tape game as they gamble with the lives of the students John Larney is supposed to safely transport from home to school and back again.
According to TDOT, the Woodlyn Road/NS crossing is one of the 1,362 rail crossings out of Tennessee’s total of 2,762 highway/railroad crossings – nearly 50% — which lack any automatic protective systems such as lights, bells or gates. And, the Federal Railroad Administration says that at least 15 trains cross there daily at speeds as high as 60 mph.
“Currently, TDOT does not have a contract with Norfolk Southern for the improvements, but we are in the process of contracting with NS,” says Tennessee DOT’s Mark Nagi. “At this stage, it will be approximately one year before the project is actually built and in place,” Nagi continues. “This is due to the processing still to be completed with TDOT, the time it takes for NS to order materials, and the time that is required by NS to have a construction crew available to construct the job.”
But the TDOT official reminds Washington County parents that the protective system – once it IS operational, is gratis. “This is a 100% federally funded safety improvement and will be completed at no cost to the local government.”
That should be comforting to school bus driver Larney when August rolls around and he knows the safety of his student charges will continue to be ignored for at least another year.