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Fred Schultz
Fred Schultz
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Why Does it Take Tragedy to Force a Change?

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It took the death of a six-year-old boy, and a great-grandmother’s determination to force long-overdue safety changes in three Greene County railroad crossings.

The boy’s great-grandmother wrote a letter to the Indiana Department of Transportation after her great-grandson died while riding in a car with his parents. Their car came upon a railroad crossing that was very narrow, had no warning lights or cross-bucks, was elevated, and surrounded by trees. In addition, the railroad tracks had a bend in them just before the crossing, making it even more difficult to spot the oncoming train.

“I would like to state my plea for crossing signals to be installed at county roads 400 North and 500 North in Greene County, Indiana,” she wrote. “I will start by saying I am Theodora Harmon, the great-grandmother of Christopher Perez, who was killed Feb. 15 when the car he was riding in was hit by a train on 400 North.”

We often think of railroad crossings that have the cross-bucks that come down, the loud bell, and the lights that flash as the train approaches. Often, we can even see the train coming down the tracks for over a mile. However, there are hundreds of thousands of railroad crossings across America that have none of these features. To make things worse, the tracks are often hidden by trees, and the crossing is elevated three to five feet into the air making it even more difficult for drivers to see whether or not a train is coming. This unfortunate combination appears to be what lead to the tragedy that happened at this particular crossing.

Part of the problem with making needed safety changes at railroad crossings is the fact that they are a mish-mashed hybrid of private, local, state, and federal property. Usually, the railroad owns the property that the railroad track runs along. However, control of the crossings depends on whether it is a county road or state highway. Also, state and federal agencies have authority over railroad crossings because of their ability to regulate transportation and commerce. The railroads either won’t – or can’t – make the safety improvements at dangerous intersections, because changes to county or state roads fall under the jurisdiction of local goverment. Meanwhile, local and state governments feel limited in improvements they can make because of budget issues.

INDOT communications director Valerie Cockrum said the state agency looks at such crossings every year and uses a formula that measures the cost and benefit ratio of suggested improvements. “Safety, and accident history, are a great consideration in that,” she said. “And that was a big factor at those crossings in Greene County.”

According to INDOT, the State of Indiana is upgrading between 30 to 35 railroad crossings a year. That sounds good, except that when you consider that Indiana has over 6,000 railroad crossings, the fifth highest of any state in the U.S.

Ideally, every dangerous crossing in Indiana will be fixed immediately. Unfortunately, though, that’s not going to happen. In the mean time, it is critically important for all of us to remember that even a train can be hidden by elevated crossings, bends in the railroad tracks, trees lining the tracks, and no warning signs.

If you want to contact someone at INDOT about a railroad crossing near you, start with:

Mike Riley, Manager
INDOT Rail Office
100 N. Senate Avenue, Rm N808
Indianapolis, IN 46204-2216

www.in.gov/indot

(The INDOT website did not give a phone number for this office).

In addition to INDOT, The Federal Railroad Aministration, or FRA, is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation and works to increase safety at dangerous crossings. The FRA has eight regional offices throughout the U.S. Part of their responsibility is to inspect dangerous railroad crossings.

If you believe there is a dangerous crossing near you, the FRA can be contacted at:

Federal Railroad Administration
RRS-13 Mail Stop 25
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: (202)493-6244
Fax: (202)493-6309