Mixed Signals

by Leslie Turk

Three dangerous train crossings in Lafayette await technology upgrades while local and state agencies disagree on funding and methodology.

Local resident Mark Artzberger will never forget the day in October 1995 when a train in the small Chicago suburb of Fox River Grove, Ill., slammed into a school bus stopped at a traffic light, ripping the bus off its chassis and killing seven students. Living in Chicago at the time, Artzberger recalls how the national headlines made a hot topic of traffic signal "preemption," a system that synchronizes lights at highway-rail intersections to clear vehicles from the path of an oncoming train.

Now manager of the digital printing company Ridgway's on Hugh Wallis Road, Artzberger is reminded of the potential for such an accident every day. His office is just off Kaliste Saloom Road, near its hectic intersection with U.S. Hwy. 90 (also known as Evangeline Thruway) where cars moving in busy traffic unknowingly stop on the railroad track while waiting for a green light ' and where there is no preemption.

"It's reminiscent of that [Fox River Grove intersection]," Artzberger says. "This is not brain surgery. All they've got to do is put in some switches and lights."

The Independent Weekly was unable to determine whether there have been any fatalities at this intersection, but Artzberger believes the likelihood of such a tragedy is high. In the Illinois incident, the bus driver told federal investigators that the signal was red and she had opened the door before the crossing to look and listen for a train but never heard it coming. An official with the National Transportation Safety Board said at the time that the problem may have been in the timing of the signal system and its engineering. He said the approaching train was supposed to trigger a signal that turned the light green to allow vehicles trapped on the track to proceed. Tests showed the light would change 20 to 25 seconds after the train activated the sensor, but it took the train only 18 seconds to get from the sensor point to the intersection.

Lafayette Consolidated Government's top traffic official agrees with Artzberger's assessment, saying the more than 20,500 Acadiana residents who travel Hwy. 90 daily via Kaliste Saloom Road may be taking their lives into their owns hands. LCG Director of Traffic and Transportation Tony Tramel makes a strong argument that the busy route is among the most dangerous railroad crossings in the city. "It has one of the highest potential serious injury opportunities because of the high volume of traffic," he says. "There is more exposure to that crossing than anywhere else."

For the past five years Tramel has battled with the state Department of Transportation and Development and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to establish traffic signal preemption at that particular crossing. Long established for safety, preemption systems are utilized across the country for highway-rail intersections. "It's not anything new," Tramel says.

There is no such system in place at two other intersections Tramel maintains qualify for preemption ' Hwy. 90's intersection with both Verot School Road and Southpark Road. Because the railroad tracks are within 200 feet of a major crossing, in this case the federal highway, the lights should be synchronized. "The railroad is not talking to the traffic signal, and the traffic signal is not talking to the railroad, so they do not know what the other one is doing," he says.

Correspondence between Tramel, Tim Huya of BNSF and Bill Shrewsberry, DOTD's highway/rail safety engineer, obtained through a public records request, confirms the local official's effort to persuade the state and railroad company to address the issue.

In a March 26, 2003, letter to Shrewsberry about Kaliste Saloom and Hwy. 90, Tramel states: "I have been attempting to establish a railroad preemption sequence at the above referenced intersection for over three years. To this date, nothing has been done ... The purpose of these follow-up letters is to document LCG's position in the event of future litigation," he writes.

DOTD's Shrewsberry referred The Independent's inquiries to spokesman Mark Lambert, who offered no details about the status of the projects, or the estimated costs. He would only say such projects are often delayed because of a lack of federal funding. "We don't have enough money to address all the things we want to address."

According to stats from the Federa; Railroad Administration, Louisiana ranked third in the country last year with 166 train-vehicle crashes, including 23 fatalities and 65 injuries. Four of the accidents were in Lafayette Parish, which has had 20 highway-rail accidents at public and private crossings in the past four years.

At press time, DOTD had not responded to a public records request about the number of accidents at these three specific crossings.

Preemption is unique to each intersection, and while it involves a complex system that has to be carefully studied by engineers, Tramel says it's neither difficult nor costly to install. He can't comprehend why it's taken DOTD so long to act.

Tramel's paper trail with DOTD reveals a dispute over the type of preemption that should be installed, what he calls "a bone of contention."

In its responses to Tramel, DOTD proposes that "simultaneous preemption" is needed, which Tramel says means the traffic would be green-lighted as soon as the crossing's lights and bells start and the gates come down, allowing about 32 seconds for clearance. "There is no guarantee, in a worst case scenario, that you can clear people off the tracks. Part of the issue is how fast the trains are approaching," Tramel says. "Is it better than what we have today? Absolutely."

The local traffic official is asking for "advanced preemption," which would allow for an additional 11 seconds. In his Feb. 23, 2000, letter to BNSF, Tramel asks for contact points that will allow for detection 43 seconds before the train arrives.

Tramel says DOTD argues that additional time is not needed because it's against the law for a vehicle to stop on the tracks. Blame the motorist is a common cry, he says. But Tramel argues there should also be common sense safety measures, because despite signs that warn vehicles not to stop on the track, people moving through busy traffic block the track everyday. "We took pictures. We have videos [of traffic stopped on the track]."

The state and federal governments and the railroad company would share the cost of such a system, according to Tramel. He says the railroad has told him costs can range from $30,000 to $500,000, though he thinks it could be done in a couple of days for less than $5,000.

Though DOTD and Burlington Northern have not notified Tramel of any specific plans, last week he received news that a work order has been issued for Kaliste Saloom and that orders to establish preemption at Southpark and Verot are awaiting BNSF's signature.

Through BNSF's public affairs office, Huya responded via e-mail: "This project is a state DOTD project," he says, explaining that the state provided the work order to his company for Kaliste Saloom on March 9 of this year. BNSF is proceeding with the engineering, ordering of materials and scheduling of work, he says. "Typically, BNSF will complete an approved signal project within one year from project approval date. BNSF's signal team will also try to install in a timely manner and as soon as practical."

Though he questions why it will take a year, Tramel welcomes the new information. "It implies that they're working on it," he says. "This is the first indication that I have received."

All of the signals at these three intersections are owned by DOTD, which also installed them. LCG has a contract to maintain them. Tramel says the Federal Highway Administration guidelines clearly state that railroad preemption should have been part of the initial installation of these traffic signals.

Railroad safety, particular as it relates to crossing gates, has been a controversial issue in the state recently, but the issue of preemption lurks in the background. "While there's a lot of discussion about railroad safety in the state, the state is not consistent with the policies and procedures most states use concerning railroad preemption," says Tramel.

He says it's likely the problem is not just a local one. He believes there are many intersections across the state that are in the same category. DOTD's Lambert says some of those do have preemption, though he was short on specifics. "I believe we've targeted something like 200 or so. Not all of them have it. I believe about half of them have it."

Though he hasn't personally witnessed accidents between trains and vehicles, Artzberger knows of at least two in the past couple of years, one in which a woman stuck on the tracks exited her car before the train hit it. "You can hear it. You can smell it," says Artzberger, who isn't the least bit surprised the problem has yet to be rectified. "In Louisiana, nothing shocks me."