(Athens, Texas – January 25, 2019)
A middle school student died and an elementary school student was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Dallas, TX when their school bus was struck by a high-speed Union Pacific freight train. The bus driver was also hospitalized as a result of this collision. The collision occurred at the dangerous and unguarded crossing of Cream Level Road and Union Pacific rails in the east Texas community of Athens Friday afternoon about 4:30 PM, CST
Athens Middle School student, Christopher Bonilla, was killed in the collision. Christopher was 13-year-old. Athens Elementary School student Joselyne Torres, 9 years old, was airlifted to Children’s Medical Center Dallas Central. The bus driver, 78-year-old John Stevens, was taken by ambulance to UT Health East Texas. Both the girl and the driver were in critical but stable condition at the two hospitals.
The tragedy occurred at a crossing which was not equipped with any active warning devices, such as lights and gates. It is virtually certain that if this crossing was equipped with active warning devices, such as lights and gates, this collision would not have occurred. Both Union Pacific and Operation Lifesaver all 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%.
Authorities said the bus driver first stopped, as required by law, and then, proceeded to try to cross the track clearly not seeing or hearing the high-speed train approaching.
Federal Railroad Administration records reflect that the crossing carries a daily average of eight Union Pacific freight trains at a maximum allowable speed of 40 mph. The roadway carries an average of 2,950 highway vehicles daily.
Satellite photos of the crossing show heavy tree lines and foliage growth along the single track, making approaching trains even more difficult to see. FRA sources also indicated there had been two prior accidents at this crossing, one an injury mishap in October, 2014, and another, non-injury collision when the crossing was owned and maintained by The Cotton Belt Route (St. Louis Southwestern Railway), prior to a 1996 acquisition by Union Pacific.
The train’s lead locomotive struck the bus directly behind the driver’s seat on the left side, and carried the vehicle on its nose at least 1,000 feet to well beyond the next crossing at Murchison Street.
Athens ISD issued a statement which said, in part, that “It is with great sorrow that we confirm one of our precious middle school students lost his life today when a district school bus collided with a train in Athens.” The Athens ISD also postponed all scheduled evening activities for Friday night.