Can gates make Springdale rail crossing safer?
Published 2:56 pm, Thursday, September 5, 2013
The recent collision of a Metro-North commuter train and a Jeep Wrangler in Stamford's Springdale section is the sixth at that crossing in the past two decades, putting the spot among the top two most accident-prone on the New Haven Line in Connecticut, according to federal statistics.
Despite the number of crashes and long-running discussions between property owner Riverbend Corporate Center and state transportation officials about the need for gates at the crossing, the safety devices have not been installed. The site, which is the sole gateless crossing on the New Canaan branch, has only flashing lights, bells and X-shaped crossbuck signs with the words "Railroad Crossing" to warn drivers.
"Even though the crossing may comply with regulation, the fact there have been a number of accidents over the years should lead anyone to recognize it is a dangerous site," said state Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, who has monitored the gate discussion. "We need to get the gates up as soon as possible before someone is seriously hurt or killed."
The six accidents at the site, including two in 2011 and another in 2008, have caused four injuries, but no fatalities, according to Federal Railroad Administration safety statistics.
Discussions to install drop-arm gates at the site to improve safety have gone on between the state and the private property owner, Riverbend Corporate Center, since at least late 2008 in the wake of an accident in August of that year.
In the past two decades, there have been 27 collisions between vehicles and trains at crossings on the New Haven Line, with safeguards at the crossings ranging from the higher level of protection of drop-arm gates to as little as stop signs and crossbuck crossing signs at private crossings. The accidents caused 20 injuries and three fatalities, according to the statistics.
Among those at-grade crossings, where vehicles must drive over railroad tracks, is one on Long Ridge Road in Redding, on state-owned land. That was the site of a deadly crash on Dec. 30 in which a Metro-North commuter train smashed into a car, killing two people and injuring two others. The safety equipment at the crossing at that time included stop signs, flashing lights, bells and crossbucks. In the wake of that accident, a project to install drop-arm gates at that location was started almost immediately, and the gates went into operation by April.
Also on the list of dangerous crossings is one off Herbert Street in Milford, which lacks any protection but stop signs and crossbucks. On Memorial Day weekend in 2011, a Waterbury-bound train struck a car occupied by 40-year-old Vicki Buker Besse and her 7-year-old daughter on their way to a family picnic, pushing the car into a ditch and injuring both.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority police found that Besse did not use proper caution in approaching the crossing.
Carter Buker, Besse's father, said the crossing has long been a safety concern because of trees along the track and the steep grade approaching the unprotected crossing. Buker said that even before his daughter's accident, he had tried to trim back overhanging branches to improve the line of sight for those who cross the spot.
"I was hoping they would at least take care of the sight line and maybe even change the grade on one of the sides to make it a little safer, but they really haven't done anything," Buker said.
A federal report on the accident filled out by Metro-North indicates that the railroad did not deem the view of the crossing obstructed during the accident.
No matter what safety equipment an at-grade rail crossing has, though, the problem of drivers disregarding them, whether consciously or not, persists. Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the majority of train-versus-car collisions on the New Haven Line are caused when drivers do not heed signals, even at crossings with gates.
"In my 24 years here, I've never had a collision at a grade crossing that was caused by safety feature malfunction," Anders said last week.
Drivers either don't stop at the tracks; they stop and keep going despite the approaching train; they drive around the gates or they stop on the tracks for whatever reason, Federal Railroad Administration records show.
"The train is on the tracks, where it's supposed to be. If a train hits a car, it's because the car is not where it's supposed to be," Anders said.
The other most accident-prone Metro-North crossing in Connecticut is less than a mile north of the Riverbend Drive South crossing, at Largo Drive, also off Hope Street. And it has drop-arm gates, in addition to traffic signals that are coordinated with the trains, flashing lights and bells. That crossing has seen as many crashes as the Riverbend Drive South site, but more people have been injured in them.
"As long as there have been horses and carts and tracks to cross, people and their vehicles have been getting in the way of trains," Anders said.
Discussions between Riverbend Center and the state of Connecticut about who would fund Metro-North's design and installation of the signalized gates at Riverbend Drive South first gained momentum in the wake of the 2008 accident involving a 17-year-old girl.
At the time, Gilbert G. Smart, a railroad regulatory officer for the state, wrote that the DOT had concluded the gates should be put in as an "added safety measure," noting two other crossings in the office park owned by Riverbend on the New Canaan Branch Line were already equipped with gates.
Smart wrote that Riverbend could speed up the installation of gates by requesting a DOT hearing, a step that was not taken, according to state records.
"This location is private property owned and maintained by the Riverbend Center group, and they are the responsible party for upgrading the safety measures, as they have at two other crossings entering this privately owned business complex," Smart wrote.
But still the project has not been completed.
Before last week's accident, the DOT had sent Metro-North a letter requesting the railroad complete a complete estimate of the cost to install gates to be submitted by Sept. 19.
Under state law, the financial responsibility to install a system of safety drop arms at the Riverbend Drive South crossing in Stamford falls on the property owner, Riverbend Corporate Center. But Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart said that the state is planning to "advance" the $1 million to $2 million needed for the cost of the work. Everhart said the money would be paid back in the future.
Michael Cacace, the lawyer representing Riverbend Corporate Center, declined comment on the status of plans to install gates or the most recent accident.
Last week, state transportation spokesman Everhart declined to comment on the state's motivation to put forward the money to get the gates done, and said the breakdown of what is to be paid for the gates by Riverbend and the city of Stamford has not been finalized.
Last year, the DOT announced it had reached an agreement with Riverbend that would get the gates installed after two accidents there in September and November 2011.
"The Connecticut DOT has agreed to `up front' the money for the installation -- probably between $1 million and $2 million for the installation -- and worry about being reimbursed later," Everhart said last week. "We would expect the reimbursement to come from Riverbend, and possibly some share from the city of Stamford."
Lance Choos, the father of the 19-year-old driver in the Aug. 26 accident, said after visiting the site of his son's crash, he hopes authorities expedite the project for safety's sake. He pointed out the steep grade on both approaches of the crossing, trees and other vegetation along the right of way and other objects he thinks obscure the view of approaching drivers.
Choos said his son, Drew Choos, a 19-year-old sophomore at Colby College, appears to have escaped with mainly bruises and cuts, and is grateful that his son was not permanently injured or killed.
"When you look at the crossing from the direction he was going, there really is tunnel vision with the vegetation there and with the steep hill. You need to be almost all the way up at the edge of the tracks to see what is coming," Lance Choos said. "I'd really like to see gates put up there, and even though I very much doubt anybody in my family will drive over those tracks again, anybody who does will be better off for it."