LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – From his office window, James Elliott has a clear view of trains rolling by one of the city's most dangerous railroad crossings.

Elliott's income tax office on Wilson Avenue sits yards from a Norfolk Southern line that crosses Wilson and Cypress Street. Since 2000, seven train collisions there have injured three people and caused $8,000 in damages to vehicles, according to federal data.

No railroad crossing in Jefferson County has had more crashes during that time. While equipped with flashing lights to warn drivers, the crossing doesn't have gates blocking cars from trains, although Kentucky transportation officials have approved up to $1.8 million to install them.

“Railroad crossing gates would be beneficial and would add a certain level of safety to the travelers on Wilson Avenue and Cypress,” Elliott said. He said he's watched the flashing lights malfunction, leaving drivers waiting for several minutes only to have no train arrive.

Last week's collision between a train and car at Norfolk Southern's Crawford Avenue crossing, killing two teenagers and severely injuring two others -- one of whom later died -- has revived a discussion about adding gates. The crossing where the crash occurred is to receive a set of gates later this year, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Across Jefferson County, nearly half of the rail crossings with the most collisions since 2000 don't have gates, according to WDRB News' analysis of Federal Railroad Administration statistics.

WDRB reviewed those crossings that have had two or more collisions during that time and found 21 of the 45 crossings lacked gates, although most have some other safety device such as lights or an X-shaped warning sign.

In all, there are 213 crossings in the county and 87 – about 40 percent – have gates.

Vicky Moore, who founded the Angels on Track Foundation after her son was killed 20 years ago at a crossing in rural Ohio, said studies have proven that gates are the best way to protect drivers.

“Statistics show that gates are the safest protection at a railroad crossing,” she said. “It's not, you know, just something that I'm throwing out there. It has been proven by federal studies that gates as are the safest protection when placed at a railroad crossing.”

Kentucky receives roughly $1.8 million a year for upgrading signals at rail crossings, including adding new gates, said Andrea Clifford, a Transportation Cabinet spokeswoman. Additional matching funds are also spent on equipment like gates and signals and removing some crossings.

Cities and counties can pay for and install their own gates, but local governments often ask the state for a share of the federal funds to pay for upgrades, Clifford said. Once the gates are installed, maintenance falls to the government or the railroads.

Federal data shows that hundreds of crossings in Kentucky lack gates. And only a handful of gate installations can be funded each year, based on an estimated cost of $250,000 to $500,000.

Clifford said Kentucky compiles a priority list of projects based on crash history, vehicle and train traffic and other factors. Officials weren't able to provide an update on any improvements planned for the Jefferson County crossings with the most frequent collisions.

The Cypress Street crossing, at the border of Louisville's Park Hill and Park DuValle neighborhoods, has received up to $1.8 million in federal funds to add crossing gates, and Norfolk Southern has agreed to pay the city $30,000 to eliminate four crossings in the area.

Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, whose 3rd District includes the crossing, said she hopes the work can begin later this year.

In March 2012, a driver was struck at the crossing “due to failure to yield,” but wasn't injured, according to a Federal Railroad Administration accident report. The train was traveling 11 miles an hour during the collision.

Federal reports show other accidents at the crossing involved drivers attempting to beat trains, stopping on the tracks and failing to stop. Despite the highest number of collisions in Louisville since 2000, no one has been killed.

About 26 trains use the crossing each day, typically traveling 5 to 10 miles per hour, according to federal data. An estimated 7,000 cars drive over the crossing daily.

Woolridge said she remembers an incident from decades ago when a young man, trying to retrieve his dog, which was under a train, had both arms severed at the crossing. She said she's been concerned about the crossing ever since.

But despite efforts that began even before the merger of city and county governments in 2003, Woolridge said the process moved slowly.

“It's a shame that maybe somebody has to die before we expedite things, but I think this project will move a little bit faster now, unfortunately, that these two young kids have died as a result of not having gates,” she said.

Kentuckians for Better Transportation, an industry group whose members include CSX Corp., Norfolk Southern, Paducah & Louisville Railway and the RJ Corman Railroad Group, doesn't have a formal position on adding gates and lights at rail crossings, executive director Juva Barber said in an email.

Barber said her group supports the funding provided through state government to make safety improvements. “We have advocated for those funds in the past and will continue to do so in the future,” she said.

Operation Lifesaver Inc., a rail-safety advocacy group, doesn't have a specific position on the advantages of crossing gates, instead preferring to focus on the “3 Es” – education, engineering and enforcement, spokeswoman Libby Rector Snipe said.

She said more than 50 percent of collisions that occur happen, on average, at crossings without gates and lights.

“We want people to know that there is potential danger at every crossing regardless of what the safety devices in place are,” she said

Among the five railroad operators in Louisville, CSX has gates as the principal warning device at 46 of its 93 crossings, or nearly half. That's the highest share of gates among the city's railroads, according to federal data.

CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost said those statistics mostly reflect decisions made by local officials.

“Ultimately they're the ones who would determine whether or not the crossing should have gates," she said.

Note: After this story was published a third teenager involved in a March 14 train collision died due to injuries he sustained in the crash. The copy has been updated to reflect that. 

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