Railroad crossing safety questioned

Railroad crossing sign (AP)

December 24, 2009 6:04:23 AM PST
Two fatal train-vehicle collisions in the past two weeks have people questioning the safety of railroad crossing arms.

In both of the recent crashes, the initial investigation found that the crossing arms and other safety devices were working properly. However, eyewitness accounts tell a different story.

Amtrak trains travel about 79 mph when crossing the Ellis Road intersection in Durham.

Two weeks ago, a collision between a SUV and an Amtrak train at that crossing killed two boys who were ejected from the SUV.

The state told ABC11 Eyewitness News the warning systems at the crossing were working properly and that there were no plans to ask Norfolk Southern to lower that track speed, which is nearly 80 mph.

According to the state, motorists are given ample warning about oncoming trains. Flashing lights, bells and gates go down more than 30 seconds before trains get to the crossing -- if they're working.

Eyewitness accounts of warning systems failing and gates not coming down have been stacking up ever since the crash.

"Whenever a train moves toward where cars are going, there needs to be some kind of notification," Joi Heggins told ABC11.

She said just this week she watched a train enter the Ellis Road crossing with absolutely no warning.

"I'm like, what if, you know, what if it would have hit me?" Heggins asked.

She said she was about to cross when the train came.

"It was right there, like right there, and I was freaked out," she explained. "The railings supposed to let us know that something is going on, and that did not happen."

Heggins is not alone. ABC11 heard from a number of people who live near the crossing or drive through it daily and say the gates frequently don't go down at all or not in time.

That's where the Federal Railroad Administration comes in. The FRA is investigating the Ellis crossing and this week's fatal crash in Efland.

The administration will determine whether the warning systems were, in fact, working properly as ABC11 has been told internal monitors show the gates were. Or we will find out if the monitors are sending back bad information.

In the wake of the accidents, a lot of people have been asking ABC11 what to do if you find yourself stuck in the position of being trapped on the tracks.

Experts say avoiding that position is the best thing you can do.

Don't go onto the tracks until you know you can get off of them. But if you find yourself there and the rails come down, they are made to be broken.

The Federal Railroad Administration advises to drive through the gates. The bottom line being property can be replaced but lives can't.

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