The wrong side of the tracks

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Trains arrive and depart from the yard under the New Braunfels Street bridge. From 1999-2003, 26 people died in Bexar County as the result of run-ins with trains. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
The wrong side of the tracks

By Jodie Briggs

Faulty crossings, daredevil drivers place Texas as No. 1 for train accidents

You are the only driver on the road. With no slowpokes around, you could make the commute in record time. But as you approach a railroad crossing, the flashing lights begin their pulsating alert. The arms lower, leaving enough wiggle room to cross the tracks. A train is coming. Or is it? There is not a locomotive in sight or a whistle within earshot. Do you chance it?

If you said yes, you are not alone. Enough drivers gamble on railway intersections to make Texas the leader in railroad crossing accidents and fatalities. With more than 5,000 public crossings in Texas, few places have a greater danger for injury. Law enforcement, railroad companies, and public information campaigns are teaming up to combat that danger by targeting railroad-crossing violators and spreading the word about railroad safety.

According to the Railroad Commission of Texas, car/train collisions and pedestrian/train collisions occur approximately every 90 minutes in the United States. Cars that collide with trains are also significantly more fatal than other automobile accidents. The Department of Transportation reports that drivers are 40 times more likely to die if they are involved in an automobile-train collision.

Cross at your own risk

Railroad Fatalities 1999-2003
(Including all railroads)

Bexar County: 26
Texas: 433
Nationally: 4,647, with a 9% decline in 2003

Union Pacific Railroad accidents
(Jan 2001-Mar 2004)


Bexar County ranks second behind Harris County with 64 accidents
Texas ranks first nationally with 634 accidents and accounts for 23.6% of all accidents nationally


1999: 769
2000: 844
2001: 977
2002: 889
2003: 849
2004 (until 3/31): 200
Average number of deaths per year resulting from accidents, 1999-2003: 224
217, or 8.1% of national total of accidents are caused by "wide gage/defective/missing crossties"

Burlington North Santa Fe Railroad Accidents
(Jan 2001-Mar 2004)


Bexar County had no accidents
Texas ranks first nationally with 307 accidents and accounts for 16.5% of all accidents nationally


1999: 514
2000: 605
2001: 668
2002: 587
2003: 593
2004 (until 3/31): 162
Average number of deaths per year resulting from accidents, 1999-2003: 137

The Federal Railroad Administration, which compiles statistics on railroad accidents, reports that between 1983 and 2002, 5,821 people were killed or injured in automobile-train collisions in the U.S. In 2002 alone, Texas had 323 automobile-train collisions. Beyond the incalculable cost of human life, the Association of American Railroads reports that these collisions cost the industry almost $1 billion a year.

In addition to the very serious threat of injury, more common commuting problems can result from railroad crossings. As countless drivers can attest, backups around railroad intersections cause delays and encourage illegal crossings. But do crossings affect city traffic? "Not really," says Michael Graves, dispatcher with the city's Traffic Division. "There are some delays, but nothing really serious," he said, before adding that city police recently issued tickets to railroad crossing violators.

Yet, at least two crossings in San Antonio appear to be faulty, and leave drivers little choice but to go around the gates: At Fredericksburg Road and Woodlawn and on Fredericksburg Road between Comal and Blanco.

At least a half-dozen times this year - including during the June flooding when water was rising on Fredericksburg Road - the gates have lowered, lights have flashed, but no train could be seen in either direction. Drivers used the crossing as a four-way stop, taking turns to circumvent the gates. VIA Transit police cars were on the scene during heavy rains, but traffic continued around the gates anyway.

Sally Tingle, state coordinator for Texas Operation Lifesaver says that drivers can help to correct faulty crossings by reporting them. "Ninety-nine percent of people don't know there's a 1-800 number at every railway crossing," she said, adding that each crossing also has an identification number.

On Fredericksburg between Comal and Blanco, the railroad ID number, 432523X, is only visible if you're traveling south. At the Fredericksburg and Woodlawn intersection, the numbers 742977C are located in the middle of the X-shaped crossing sign. (It should be noted that is difficult to jot down these numbers while driving.) The toll-free number is 1-800-772-7677.

With 12 percent of Texas accidents resulting from drivers going around gates, Tingle looks to cooperation among railroads and drivers as a preventative solution. "The railroads can't fix them if they don't know they're not working."

"It's up to the railroad to make those repairs," said SAPD spokesperson Gutierrez when asked about faulty crossing signals.

Crossing Accident Reduction Enforcement, or CARE, is an effort between Union Pacific Railroad and local police. CARE urges drivers to obey railroad-crossing laws. A 1997 amendment to the Texas Transportation code explicitly outlines driver behavior with regard to oncoming trains. When crossing gates are lowered, a mechanical signal flashes, a whistle sounds, or when a train is visible, drivers are required to stop "not closer than 15 feet or farther than 50 feet from the rail." The law also instructs drivers to remain stopped until "it is safe to proceed," but it does not dictate a specific amount of time. Drivers commit offenses if they "drive around, under, or through a crossing or barrier while the gate is closed, being closed, or being opened," and are subject to fines between $50 and $200.

Instead of targeting law-breakers, some hope to prevent violations and accidents before they can occur. Operation Lifesaver, a national non-profit organization, wants the public to know about the dangers surrounding railroad crossings. "Education is the biggest part of our program," says state coordinator Sally Tingle.

Since it began in 1972, Operation Lifesaver has transformed volunteers into railroad safety instructors by training them to effectively spread the message of railway crossing safety. Operation Lifesaver also works with the railroad industry to promote warning-system technology. Improvements in signals, alarms, and gates could reduce illegal-crossing incidents.

Union Pacific, which commands 6,408 miles of track in Texas, allows police to ride along in trains or follow their path to spot violators. Incident statistics compiled by railroads tell police where large numbers of violations occur. "We want people to know there are traffic laws," said John Bromley, spokesman for Union Pacific. But he questions the effectiveness of citations. "It's like taking aspirin to prevent a headache. There's really no way to measure its effectiveness," Bromley said. •

By Jodie Briggs

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