(La Porte, Indiana – September 13, 2012)
After a number of incidents which did not result in serious injuries or death, what a South Bend, IN TV station refers to as a “deadly design flaw” with regard to circuitry controlling railroad grade crossing gates along the Norfolk Southern double-tracked rail route through La Porte, IN has been determined, re-programmed and, hopefully, fixed thanks to investigative work conducted by both the TV station (WBND-TV, Channel 57, an ABC affiliate) and La Porte City Engineer Dale Clingerman. The research and retrofit occurred after a La Porte couple, Thomas and Linda Matz, became stuck between lowered gates in their Chevrolet Cavalier and had to abandon the vehicle, which was, in turn, totally destroyed, when a train bore down upon them three weeks ago.
According to the La Porte city engineer, the near-fatal phenomenon has occurred 20 times in the past two years, 15 of them – including the Matz’s unfortunate experience – this year.
What happens wrong with the system? According to Clingerman, it is a “faulty design”, one that occurs when there is one train coming from one direction that is delayed just long enough that another train that has cleared the circuit from the opposite direction triggers the gates to go up.
Clingerman says the timing has to be just right – or, rather, just wrong – but with a daily average of 53 trains, four of them Amtrak passenger trains with top allowable speeds of 79 mph, crossing through the corridor, the problem is happening more often. The frequency and spacing of trains cause the circuit-occupying situation that prevents the crossing gate circuit mechanism from resetting, and gates that have risen following the passage of one train drop and trap motorists on the tracks. Such was the Matz couple’s fate on a simple return trip from a local grocery store.
“It was panic,” recalled Linda Matz of the re-deployment of the gates. “We didn’t have time to think.”
“I saw the lights from the train and I knew we had to get out of there,” said Thomas Matz. “I told my wife to get out of the car and run. So, we jumped out of the car and ran as fast as we could.”
“It was traumatizing,” relates Linda. “I personally don’t want to ever cross the same railroad tracks!”
Following the wreck, Clingerman contacted the Indiana Dept. of Transportation which, in turn, worked with NS to reprogram the gates’ circuitry to fix the problem. He also advised motorists who find themselves in the position of being “trapped” that the aluminum gates are designed to break off should a vehicle need to escape the peril of an oncoming train. “Just drive through the gates because they are programmed to give way,” he said.