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N. Amherst accident probed

Railroad officials: Train-vehicle collisions not uncommon

AMHERST — Drivers gambling that they can beat an oncoming train at railroad crossings are not uncommon, railroad company officials say.

“As an industry we see train-vehicle collisions nationwide every day,” said Chad Mowery, general manager of New England Central Railroad in Vermont. “The majority of the time there are lights and gates and active warnings by the train crew, but driver inattentiveness causes us to continue to have these collisions.”

Though it has not yet been determined that that is what happened in the collision that occurred Wednesday in North Amherst, a preliminary investigation indicated that warning lights and bells had been triggered before the freight train operated by Mowery’s company arrived at the crossing at Bridge Street and struck a car crossing the tracks.

Police and railroad officials said they expect to finish their accident reports Friday. The names of the three women who were in the Volkswagen Passat involved in the collision have not yet been released. No one was injured despite heavy damage to the rear of the car.

The train, which was headed to Palmer carrying lumber and paper products, was not damaged, Mowery said. Its three-person crew was traveling under the 40 mph speed limit, he said.

New England Central Railroad operates 394 miles of railroad between the Vermont/Quebec border, and New London, Conn., according to its website. It runs four to five trains a day through Amherst.

Those interviewed say they do not believe that stronger safety controls necessarily are needed at Amherst’s crossings which have a combination of signs, lights and bells to alert motorists.

But there is no gate at the Bridge Street crossing where the accident occurred. The same is true at seven of the eight rail crossings in Amherst, including the one that intersects with Main Street.

One railroad company official said gates do not always stop impatient drivers, anyway. “They go right around them,” said Mike Rennicke, vice president and general manager of Pioneer Valley Railroad of Westfield.

Lack of gates common

Gary Roux, principal planner for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said Amherst’s lack of gates is not unusual. Of the 95 active road-level train crossings in Hampden and Hampshire counties, less than 10 percent have automatic gates, he said, based on the most recent data which is 10 years old.

He said the state Department of Transportation determines what type of warning systems are needed at road-level crossings from simple signs to the relatively rare four-quadrant gates that block all access to the tracks on both sides. Those, he said, are placed in high-traffic areas, although he did not know how many there are in the two counties served by his commission.

Most gates, Roux said, block just one lane of traffic on either side of the tracks. The type of warning system required is based on a number of factors, including both train and vehicle traffic volume and speed limits, he said.

Once the state determines what is needed at a particular crossing, the railroad company is responsible for installing and maintaining the warning system, Mowery said.

An official from the state Department of Transportation did not return calls for comment.

Rennicke, whose company runs routes in Hampden County, said those one-lane gates can easily be bypassed by motorists who believe they can beat the train.

“People don’t realize that a train can’t stop quickly,” he said. “They think they can make it. They think the train is going slow, but it is very, very deceiving.”

If a train is moving with any speed, Rennicke added, “It’s several hundreds yards to a mile before they can stop.”

Train companies like his are continually running public information campaigns to warn people of the danger, he said. Rennicke runs what he calls safety blitzes. With the assistance of local police departments, he makes trips to train intersections to stop motorists, alert them of the hazards and distribute safety literature. “It’s very effective,” he said. “We get many responses back from the public thanking us for the reminder.”

Rennicke said that he even has run trainings for school bus drivers. “Believe it or not, some school bus drivers go through the flashing lights. It blows your mind,” he said.

In recent years, Rennicke said, trespassers — people walking tracks often wearing headphones — have been more troublesome than vehicles dodging trains. They are seemingly oblivious to a train coming up behind them despite the crew “frantically blowing the whistle,” he said. The number of those people injured or killed by trains is now exceeding accidents at road crossings, he said.

Measures sufficient

Amherst Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring said that other than the Main Street crossing, Amherst’s train intersections are in low-traffic areas. Besides Main and Bridge streets, there are crossings at Pulpit Hill Road, Pine Street, Strong Street, North Whitney Street, High Street and Station Road. The crossing at Station Road, where there were two derailments in recent years, has a gate.

Mooring said there have been few incidents at the crossings other than the derailments and one episode in 2009 in which two teenage girls were jumping on and off the tracks at Pine Street as a train bore down on them. They faced charges in juvenile court of obstruction of a passing train, obstruction of train tracks and disorderly conduct. In 2008 a man died when he appeared to have deliberately stepped in front of a train, also at Pine Street. Mooring said he believes the safety measures in place in Amherst are sufficient.

If money was available, though, Mooring said he would like to see a gate at the Main Street crossing, which now has a warning-lights bar extended part way over the tracks in addition to signs and bells.

Mowery said he does not believe that all crossings need gates, but it cannot hurt to have them. “I think any time you can add protection to a crossing it enhances the overall safety.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.

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