Dangerous Crossings: A Special Report

Matt Jones was killed at an unmarked railroad crossing near his home in 2004.
Matt Jones was killed at an unmarked railroad crossing near his home in 2004.

Posted by Samuel King - bio | email

JEMISON, AL (WSFA) - Few states have more vehicle collisions at train crossings than Alabama.   The state ranks 7th in the country for the number of collisions and is tied for 11th in the number of fatalities.  Fewer than half of the state's crossings have gates or flashing lights to warn motorists of potential danger.

A mother's story

Trains are an unavoidable part of life in Jemison, and 16 year old Matt Jones knew them well.

"He had grew up around these tracks and he was familiar with the trains," said Brenda Jones, Matt's mother.

Matt had stayed home sick from school one day in October of 2004.

"He decided he wanted to wander out to get something to eat," Brenda said.  "And I had left a note for him to call me.  And he did, and he asked me momma, what do you want?  I told him and so the last words he said I love you, and I said I love you."

Minutes later, he was dead.  His vehicle was crushed by an oncoming train at a crossing without a gate.

His mother believes a gate at the crossing, just like the one farther down the tracks would have made a difference.

"I'd like for the bells and crossings to be put up to assure some people, so they'll be more aware of it, more cautious," Jones said.

A Complicated Process

Getting a gate installed isn't easy.  The federal government sends money to state governments to be used to determine which crossings should have gates or warning signals.

"The criteria look at things like traffic volumes, the types of traffic and accident histories and a number of other things," said Tony Harris, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation.  "Those are some of the biggest things in order to prioritize crossings for the available funds."

WSFA 12 News checked federal statistics to find out which crossings had the most collisions over the past five years and whether those crossings had gates, lights or signs.   Of the sixteen crossings in the state with three or more collisions in the last five years, only two had gates.   Both of those are in Mobile County.  Others did have flashing lights.

A crossing with flashing lights on Tyson Road in Lowndes County had three collisions in five years, including one that killed two people.

The Alabama DOT hands out the money to install gates, but it's up to the railroad companies to install them.  The $5 million the state received last year paid for 25 to 30 crossing upgrades.   But that still leaves 60% of public crossings in Alabama unprotected by gates or flashing lights.

"We're making steady progress," Harris said.  "It's a slow gain in how fast we can install active protective devices."

Even at some crossings with fatalities, the traffic counts are relatively low.  So they're not as high on the priority list.

"We make every effort to get the projects in place with the railroad companies so we can get the crossing protection out there where it's needed the most," Harris said.

The Right Decisions

But gates alone won't solve the problem.  Operation Lifesaver works to reduce the number of deaths at railroad crossings and rights of way.  Its executive director tells WSFA 12 News gates often give drivers a false sense of security.

"The best safety equipment is the driver that makes the right decision.  And you may think you can beat that train, but one thing to think about is if it's a tie, you lose."

Brenda Jones hopes her son's case will lead others to heed that advice.

"Just be more cautious at a railroad crossing,"  Jones said.  "Look both ways, because I have looked and then get across and there would be a train."

CSX Responds

A CSX spokesperson told WSFA 12 News that railroad companies do not have the authority to install gates without authorization from governments, largely because gates are considered traffic control devices.  Once CSX is notified that the Department of Transportation wants a gate installed at crossing, the company sets an internal deadline to finish the installation.

CSX also takes other steps to improve safety at crossings, like working with Operation Lifesaver.  The company also works to ensure sight lines at crossings are clear, and make sure horns on trains are working properly.  Those horns are also shown to be an effective safety device.

WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2011