NDOT Considers Rail Crossing Safety Upgrades

July 6, 2012

The Nevada Department of Transportation is considering safety improvements at some railroad crossings on roads with fast speed limits, including the site of last year’s deadly crash between an Amtrak passenger train and a tractor-trailer that killed six and injured dozens.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported the move comes amid criticism from rail personnel, a truck driver and others who say it’s taken too long to make improvements.

Critics also say NDOT has failed to collect reports from train engineers who report close calls when they see vehicles struggle to stop in time at a crossing. Such reports could help NDOT assess the dangers of particular crossings.

Chuck Reider, NDOT’s chief safety engineer, told the newspaper this week that the agency is looking at adding “active advance warning signs” on U.S. 95 and two other roads with 70-mph speed limits. The signs would detect an approaching train and flash a light to alert a driver that a crossing is ahead.

But he said lowering the speed limit, adding rumble strips and other possible changes have their down sides. The agency is waiting for the National Transportation Safety Board to complete its investigation into why Lawrence Valli slammed into the westbound California Zephyr on June 24, 2011 before deciding what is needed at the U.S. 95 crossing.

“Railroad crossings have few crashes but, when they do happen, they are catastrophic,” Reider said. “Our goal is to pick those projects that will have the most effect.”

David Fyfe, a truck driver, said he almost crashed into an Amtrak train nine months before the fatal June 2011 crash but hit the guard rail instead. And in April, another truck approaching the crossing from the south screeched to a halt with brakes smoking just before the crossing gate, according to an Amtrak engineer.

Engineers are required to report to rail officials whenever they see a near miss, but NDOT does not collect those reports and had not heard about the September 2010 or the April close calls, Reider said.

“It’s not typically something we look at,” Reider said. “Is there any research that shows a correlation between a near-miss and a hazardous site?”

Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said data on close calls can help a state determine whether safety improvements are needed.

The administration is conducting a confidential close-call pilot program that allows rail workers to report any safety concerns in all areas of the rail industry, not just rail crossings, he said. These close call reports “give experts data to determine whether safety measures need to be added,” he said.

“Railroads have had internal close call reporting in this area for a number of years,” Flatau said. “The intelligence is really intended to benefit them and the state. But it’s the state that has the responsibility to determine the adequacy of the warning measures on crossings.”

NDOT was named in four new lawsuits filed last week by rail workers and passengers who were injured and the family of an Amtrak conductor who was killed in the 2011 crash. The suits, filed in Washoe District Court, claim NDOT was negligent for failing to secure adequate advance warning signs on the road, which allegedly contributed to Valli’s inability to stop in time.

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