(Todd County, Minnesota – December 6, 2013)
A 57-year-old commercial trucker driving a 2011 Kenworth tractor and hauling a flatbed trailer was killed at about 4:25 P.M. Friday afternoon when his 18-wheeler collided with Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” passenger train headed for Chicago, IL from Seattle, WA at a rural crossing in Todd County, Minnesota that had neither flashing lights, bells, nor crossing gates to help prevent such tragedies.
Donald Ray Hedlund, Sr., of Bemidji, MN, who was driving for Minnesota Limited trucking out of Big Lake, MN was pronounced dead at the scene after he attempted to cross the extremely skewed and S-curved patterned Red Pine Road crossing of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks near the intersection of Red Pine and 317th Street. Some media reports mistakenly referred to the crossing, which forms a snake-like curve as it approaches BNSF track from either side, as Red Rock Road, which does not exist.
The collision, which occurred at a point where the top allowable speed for Amtrak is 79 mph, was the first recorded for the oddly-configured crossing which a dozen school buses cross daily with only passive railroad and highway signage posted, devices which have no capability to warn motorists of oncoming trains even when they stop their vehicles and look both ways. Meanwhile, a daily average of 46 trains, including the two Amtrak trains, cross at speeds as high as 79 mph. It is virtually certain that lights and gates would have prevented this incident. Both BNSF and Operation Lifesaver know 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%.
According to Amtrak spokesperson Christina Lee, two of the train’s 161 passengers were injured and taken to Lake Wood Hospital, where one was treated and released and the other held for further treatment. A number of other passengers also complained of minor injuries, but were treated at the scene and allowed to continue their journey aboard the train, as was the passenger treated and released at Lake Wood.
Media reports said that the victim “failed to stop” at the crossing, and Todd County Deputy Sheriff Don Asmus said that the wintery road conditions were not considered to be a leading factor in the tragedy.
Instead, the primary factors were likely the poorly-configured S-curve crossing and the lack of active crossing protective devices at a crossing where drivers play Russian roulette with close to two trains per hour as motorists risk life, limb and those of their passengers in attempting to safely negotiate an accident no longer waiting to happen.