SUNDAY EDITION | Gates planned at Kentucky rail crossings with f - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Gates planned at Kentucky rail crossings with frequent crashes

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In all, 62 road-and-rail intersections are set to get gates that, when lowered, are meant to block cars. In all, 62 road-and-rail intersections are set to get gates that, when lowered, are meant to block cars.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – On a clear, warm late November afternoon in 2012, a train moving slowly through Louisville's western neighborhoods struck a car crossing at Cypress Street, injuring the driver and her passenger.

Five days later, a woman driving alone at night attempted to cross railroad tracks in Earlington, a small city in western Kentucky. A train traveling 45 miles per hour, carrying 95 cars, slammed into her driver's side door, killing her.

Both locations lacked working safety gates, although crash reports from the Federal Railroad Administration indicate other warning devices such as flashing lights and bells were in place.

Separated by some 150 miles, the crossings rank as the most hazardous in Kentucky based on the frequency and severity of the crashes. Federal records show more than a dozen collisions between trains and vehicles at the two sites since 2000 – seven in Louisville, injuring three people, and six in Earlington, where two have died.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet plans to install safety gates, or arms, at both sites as part of a statewide effort that prioritizes projects based on daily traffic, crash history, train volumes and other factors. In all, 62 road-and-rail intersections are set to get gates that, when lowered, are meant to block cars.

Earlington Mayor Arthur Johnson said gates were added last week at the CSX tracks. He welcomes the new protections, which he hopes will provide another warning that a train is approaching.

“We've always had problems with people getting hit at these crossings,” Johnson said.

Also on the list is a Jefferson County crossing where a Norfolk Southern train hit a car attempting to cross tracks in West Buechel last month, killing three teenagers. The funding for the project, which transportation officials expect to start later this year, was approved prior to the crash.

INTERACTIVE: MAP OF JEFFERSON COUNTY CROSSINGS ON STATE PRIORITY LIST

INTERACTIVE: MAP OF KENTUCKY RAIL CROSSINGS WITH MOST COLLISIONS SINCE 2000

But Kentucky's plans for adding gates don't necessarily include locations with the most frequent wrecks, according to a WDRB News review of the state priority list and federal crash data over the last 15 years. Among the findings:

--Across Kentucky, 17 crossings without gates have had at least four collisions since 2000. Of those, seven (41 percent) are scheduled to receive gates.

--In Louisville, gates would be added to seven of the 20 crossings that have had multiple collisions since 2000. They are also planned for four other crossings, each with one crash during that time.

It's unclear when the safety gates will be added. The state's list shows crossings that have been approved for gates, but work can only begin when federal funding is received, Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said in an email.

Statewide, 479 public rail crossings have safety gates, or about one in five in Kentucky, according to federal statistics.

The state receives $1.8 million for crossing improvements each year, enough to cover a handful of new gate installations costing $250,000 to $500,000.

In some cases, gate projects are more difficult than highway work because of the layout of the sites and obstructions, such as trees, that need to be removed, Wolfe said in an interview.

“They have some that have been waiting literally now for years to get the gates because of all the complications, just in terms of getting a site cleared and ready to go,” he said.

Wolfe cautioned against assuming that gates guarantee safer at-grade crossings. He provided a spreadsheet showing 444 crashes occurred at 364 locations after gates were added.

Meanwhile, research by the University of California at Berkeley found that 73 percent of crashes between trains and vehicles over a five-year period in California happened at crossings with gates. Of the crashes examined, about 27 percent involved cars driving through or around lowered gates.

“The only way to stop people from driving in front of trains is to physically stop them,” said Douglas L. Cooper, a retired Berkeley researcher.

Cooper said adding “long-arm” gates that cover most of the road are one of the most effective ways to keep drivers from being hit. Shorter gates also help, he said.

“They deter most normal people, and they stop,” he said.

The Ohio-based Angels on Track Foundation long has pushed for gates at rail crossings as the most effective method of curbing crashes between trains and vehicles.

The foundation cites Federal Railroad Administration data showing that crossings with gates have among the lowest rates of deaths and injuries when adjusted for traffic counts – lower than stop signs and X-shaped “crossbuck” signs.

Angels on Track founder Vicky Moore, whose son was killed at a rail crossing in 1995, said states should be using federal railroad safety funds to install gates, especially at rural crossings. She argues other signs don't offer enough protection.

“It's a sign. It doesn't tell you a train is coming,” she said. “It doesn't protect the motorist or warn them that it's not safe to cross. The only thing that will protect a motorist is properly functioning gates.”

In the Louisville area, a Paducah & Louisville crossing in Radcliff has had two collisions, leaving four people injured, since 2000, federal data shows. No other site in the region has had more injuries over that time.

The crossing, which sits at a curve on a six-lane stretch of North Logsdon Parkway, is not on the state's list for gates.

Nancy Lancaster can see the tracks from the land development office where she works. She said she has seen drivers “fly on across” the crossing even if warning lights are flashing.

From her office, Lancaster pointed out a stand of trees that she said obstructs the view southbound drivers have of approaching trains. Gates would make the crossing safer, she said.

“You can't get a clear view down there,” she said. “I mean, if they have things that go down to stop them, the gates that go down to stop them, then they'll have to stop and see if a train is coming.”

WDRB reviewed crash statistics from 34 crossings in Kentucky that have had at least four collisions since 2000. Of those, exactly half had gates. In Louisville, gates guarded 53 percent of the locations with more than one crash during that time.

“Gates and ringing bells and lights are a warning device,” said B. Wayne Gentry, executive director of Operation Lifesaver Kentucky, a group that advocates for rail safety education.

But educating drivers and pedestrians about watching for trains near railroad tracks is one of the best ways to help prevent collisions, said Gentry, a retired Norfolk Southern engineer.

Adding more gates wouldn't necessarily make crossings safer, he said.

“I do not think that would solve the problem, because you would still have that person that's in a hurry to get to Mickey D's and that would go around the gates,” Gentry said. “It would be impossible to put lights and gates at every crossing.”

Despite safety gates, and other warning signs, a rail crossing at 1st Street in downtown La Grange has had six collisions since 2000, tying it for the second-most number of collisions in Kentucky. No injuries were recorded.

Incident reports don't provide much detail about the Oldham County crashes. In most cases, the reports simply indicate that vehicles were struck by trains traveling less than 10 miles per hour.

Karen Leightty, whose Utopia Studio Gallery has a clear view of the crossing, said drivers sometimes are anxious to get through the crossing and have had gates lower onto their vehicles.

“I just want them to be aware of what could happen if you make the wrong choice,” she said. “You know, it's life or death. You don't mess around with a train.”

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