By Jeannine anderson and Brian Love
WASHINGTON – Although railroad crossings in Maryland are getting safer, at least a dozen have had multiple accidents in recent years that led to injuries and a death, records show.
Federal Railroad Administration records show there were 72 accidents from January 1991 through December 1996 at the 687 points in Maryland where railroad tracks cross public roads. The data for last year is preliminary.
This six-year total compares to 65 accidents in 1975 alone – before officials say they stepped up efforts to install more active warning devices and improve public education.
A track crossing on Hanover Road in Howard County and an intersection with English Muffin Way in Frederick County have the worst accident history. Each logged three accidents during the six years studied by Capital News Service. One person was killed and two were injured in the collisions.
“I heard the train blow its horn like hell” just before the accident on Feb. 3, 1992, at English Muffin Way, said John Lapp, 43, who said he was sitting in his nearby auto body shop.
The driver of the van failed to stop at the crossing and was killed by a train, FRA records show. No warning lights were in place at the time.
Ten other track crossings – in Allegany, Dorchester, Washington, Charles, Wicomico and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City – were the scene of two accidents apiece during the six years.
Ten of the dozen crossings met the state’s minimal requirements for warning signs: a round orange-and-black sign that says “RR” and the traditional X-shaped, crossbuck sign that says “Railroad Crossing.”
But two crossings – in the Locust Point section of Baltimore that is dense with bars and industrial traffic – are missing orange-and-black signs. And both crossings are plagued by stop signs that have faded from red to yellow.
A state highway official said exceptions to the railroad sign requirement are allowed if there is no place to put the signs or if, because of road configurations, they would not be effective. But even he acknowledged one of those Baltimore crossings – at Andre Street – is a problem.
Two collisions occurred at Andre Street in 1993 – both on the side of the tracks where there is no orange-and-black warning sign. Both accidents occurred at night. In one of the accidents, the car’s driver was injured.
“It’s a horrible crossing,” said Robert Herstein, who leads a special safety study team for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “The best thing to do would be to close the road.”
Because of the condition of the dock area, “We could sink a million dollars into it, and still not make it any better,” Herstein said.
People who live and work near some of the other crossings in Maryland also say changes need to be made to make them safer.
“They’re just waiting for somebody to get killed,” said David Mudd, 52, who tends bar at the Gallant Green bar, a stone’s throw from a crossing on Woodville Road in Waldorf.
Mudd says he has complained to county and state officials about the crossing, where visibility is poor in both directions and there have been two accidents in six years.
“Even a decent reflective sign up here would help,” he said.
Mary Jane Martin, 45, has similar concerns about a crossing near her family’s home on Reiff Church Road in Maugansville. Two accidents in six years left one person injured at the Washington County crossing.
During summer months, Martin said, leaf cover from trees along the tracks makes it difficult to see approaching trains.
Safety advocates and transportation officials say there is always a risk of an accident any time railroad tracks cross a road.
“It’s impossible to have a crossing that has a zero risk,” said Robert Finkelstein, staff director for systems support at the FRA’s Office of Safety. The only way to eliminate risk entirely is to close the crossing, he said.
And building an overpass to eliminate a crossing can cost several million dollars, Herstein said. He could recall only one such instance in Maryland in the last 20 years.
Nonetheless, officials do their best to keep track of the most dangerous intersections and address problems one at a time as funds become available, Herstein said.
The state gets $1.5 million a year in federal funds to make railroad crossings safer, Herstein said. The state kicks in about $400,000.
Improvements are expected this year at 11 crossings across the state, Herstein said. None are among the 12 crossings where multiple accidents occurred between 1991 and 1996.
However, both the Reiff Church Road crossing in Washington County and the Woodville Road crossing in Charles County are scheduled to receive flashing warning lights and safety gates in 1998, Herstein said. Safety gates cost between $70,000 and $150,000.
About 40 percent of crossings in Maryland have flashing lights, he said, compared to about 25 percent of Virginia’s 2,138 crossings and more than half of Delaware’s 284 crossings. Of those with lights in Maryland, about a third have gates as well, Herstein said.
All crossings would be safer with flashing lights, Herstein said, but gates are not necessarily an improvement. “I’ve seen fuel tankers go around gates, I’ve seen school buses go around gates,” he said.THE THREE-ACCIDENT CROSSINGS
There were no flashing lights at the crossing at English Muffin Way in Frederick County on Feb. 3, 1992, when the driver of a van failed to stop at the crossing and was killed by a train, FRA records show.
Less than 10 days later, a train hit a truck at the same crossing; this time the driver escaped injury. And in April 1994, a driver was injured when a train hit his truck at the same crossing.
The crossing is in a light industrial area with an auto body shop and a video production company near the tracks.
Warning flashers now hanging over the one-track crossing were not installed until after the three accidents, Herstein said. Previously, only crossbucks and the orange-and-black RR sign marked the crossing, he said.
The Hanover Road crossing in Howard County had flashing lights, bells, signs and gates in place to warn motorists, FRA reports show. Even so, three accidents have occurred there since 1991.
In December 1992, a train struck a car that was stopped on the tracks, FRA reports show. The driver was uninjured.
In a 1995 incident, a truck was struck by a train after the driver drove around the gates, the FRA reported.
In the most recent accident in October 1996, a truck towing heavy equipment got stuck on the tracks and was hit by a MARC commuter train. The truck exceeded the posted weight limit for the road.DRIVER AWARENESS NEEDED
Cases like these underline the need for drivers to be more aware of the dangers of rail crossings, rail-safety advocates said.
“Trains can’t stop quickly,” said Barbara Belk, Maryland coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a railroad-sponsored organization devoted to improving public awareness of railroad crossing dangers.
People often become too complacent and familiar with crossings near their homes or businesses, which can cause them to lower their guard, Belk said.
“People need to learn that they must not drive around a gate when it’s down,” said Gerri Hall, president of Operation Lifesaver.
It is difficult to judge how fast a train is going, Hall said. “It’s very hard to tell the difference between [a train] going 30 mph and one going 60,” she said.
A train going 50 mph covers 88 feet in one second, she said. And it can take a train a mile and a half to stop.
Drivers need to keep in mind that if their car gets hit by a train, it’s likely to be crushed, Finkelstein said.
“Did you ever run over an empty Coke can with your car?” he asked. “It didn’t hurt the car, did it?” CNS writers Kerana Todorov, Karen Masterson, Mike Householder, Mary L. Schumacher and Dan Kulin contributed to this report. -30-