Federal officials have ordered Florida to reduce railroad crossing accidents, even as the number of collisions between trains and automobiles has been cut in half over the past four years.
A new rule released by the Federal Railroad Administration requires Florida and nine other states with the highest rates of crashes to develop plans to further reduce the number of accidents.
The irony is that failure to do so could jeopardize federal funding that goes toward crossing safety.
Plans must be submitted by August 2011 and implemented within five years.
“The numbers are trending in the right way, but we would still like to see the number of incidents reduced substantially,” said Rob Kulat, an administration spokesman.
“Zero is the ultimate goal.”
About 80 percent of the state’s crossings already have lights and gates. Short of closing crossings or building costly overpasses, state officials may have to turn to the public to drill home the message about the dangers of willfully ignoring warning lights or driving around crossing gates.
The Florida Department of Transportation gets $7 million a year from the federal government to spend on rail crossing safety. That usually covers 40 to 50 projects a year, mostly installing warning devices where there are none, upgrading signals with LED lights to make them brighter or putting in gates that completely block both sides of a crossing.
Some states are experimenting with new technology that relies on sensors that detect the presence of a vehicle on the tracks and alert train engineers and dispatchers in traffic management centers. Advance warning is crucial because it can take a train a mile or more to come to a complete stop.
“If they see someone is stopped on the tracks, they can dispatch law enforcement,” said Annette Lapkowski, the state’s rail operations administrator.
In Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, 34 people were killed and 51 were injured in 145 crossing accidents from 2005 through April 2010, according to a Sun Sentinel analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data.
Six of the 145 accidents in South Florida occurred at crossings without gates, although in one case the devices were down for repair at the time of the crash. Two of the six crashes occurred at a crossing in Miami that had overhead flashing lights. One of the six had a standard flashing light system with an audible signal, stop signs and cross bucks, the sign saying “railroad crossing.” Three crossings were marked by cross bucks only.
Most of the 220 crossings on the Florida East Coast Railway between Miami and Jupiter have gates and lights but not the type that prevent drivers from going around when a train is approaching. That likely would change if passenger trains return to the tracks.
A study on the proposed passenger rail service has identified up to 14 FEC crossings in Broward and five in Palm Beach County from Boca Raton to West Palm Beach that could be replaced with overpasses.
One overpass could cost $20 million to $40 million. It took nearly three decades for the state to begin construction on the $39.5 million flyover where Dixie Highway crosses the FEC tracks in Deerfield Beach.
The study’s initial recommendations show up to seven FEC crossings in Palm Beach County, mostly in West Palm Beach, and one in Broward County at Northwest Fourth Street in Fort Lauderdale could be closed or consolidated with others. The remaining crossings would get new safety devices or other improvements.
In addition to addressing crossing safety, the study is looking at what steps are necessary for communities to receive waivers from a rule requiring trains to blow their horns at every crossing, said DOT project manager Scott Seeburger.
All 72 crossings on the state-owned CSX line shared by Tri-Rail, Amtrak and CSX freight trains were improved several years ago to prevent people from driving around gates when trains approach, said Tri-Rail spokeswoman Jennifer Paul.
The improvements included either four-quadrant gates that come down on all four corners of the crossing, raised median curbs or a combination of raised curbs on one side of the crossing and a full closure gate that blocks the other side.
The safety measures were made when a second track was installed so Tri-Rail could double the number of weekday commuter trains.
Still, people are getting past the updated gates, and some drivers are plowing right through.
In November 2009, Connie Hamblin, 44, of Tennessee, stopped on the tracks on Commercial Boulevard west of Interstate 95 between the crossing gates after the gates had come down.
She backed up to the gates behind her, then inexplicably moved forward as a northbound Tri-Rail train with 250 passengers barreled through the crossing at 60 mph. Hamblin and a passenger in the car were killed.
In drafting its plan, the state will look at accident trends to determine crossings that should be upgraded.
A public awareness plan that puts an emphasis on educating people not to try to beat trains also will be a huge component, Lapkowski said.
“Don’t take that risk. If you do there are often grave consequences,” Lapkowski said.
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