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People are dying at dangerous Missouri rail crossings. What’s taking so long to fix them?

Kansas City Star logo Kansas City Star 8/15/2022 Laura Bauer, Judy L. Thomas, Bill Lukitsch, The Kansas City Star
This is the railroad crossing on Anaconda Road, just east of East 255th Street on the southwest side of Harrisonville, where a freight train struck a tractor-trailer in late 2021, killing the driver, Michael K. Samani of Lenexa. © Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com/Kansas City Star/TNS This is the railroad crossing on Anaconda Road, just east of East 255th Street on the southwest side of Harrisonville, where a freight train struck a tractor-trailer in late 2021, killing the driver, Michael K. Samani of Lenexa.

At least 12 people have died in the past 2½ years in crashes at Missouri railroad crossings that had been scheduled for repairs but were never completed, The Star has found.

In Chariton County, where an Amtrak crash in late June killed four people and injured 150, a northern Missouri man died a year earlier after his pickup was hit by a train at a different crossing also slated for improvements. The 2021 collision was the second fatality at that crossing in four years.

In southwest Missouri, a 2020 crash that claimed the life of a 59-year-old woman happened at a crossing that town officials and residents had been petitioning the state and railroad to fix for years.

Now, in the weeks since the deadly Amtrak crash at another crossing that locals had complained about for several years, many are questioning the failure of BNSF Railway and the Missouri Department of Transportation to fix the location that both knew was considered dangerous.

A freight train struck a tractor-trailer late last year in Cass County, killing the driver, Michael K. Samani of Lenexa. This photo shows the approach to the crossing on Anaconda Road, just east of East 255th Street on the southwest side of Harrisonville. © Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com/Kansas City Star/TNS A freight train struck a tractor-trailer late last year in Cass County, killing the driver, Michael K. Samani of Lenexa. This photo shows the approach to the crossing on Anaconda Road, just east of East 255th Street on the southwest side of Harrisonville.

Farmers and nearby residents, railroad experts and local government leaders say if known hazards at crossings across Missouri aren’t corrected in a more timely manner, many more could be killed or injured.

“It is a wake-up call,” said Mike Spencer, a Chariton County farmer who repeatedly warned the railroad and MoDOT about the dangers at the crossing where the Southwest Chief, on its way to Chicago, derailed in June. “The railroad has to do more. And that word ‘more’ needs to include that they need to be proactive. They need to see a problem before it becomes a problem.

“... It’s their responsibility. It’s their railroad track. No different than if something goes wrong on my farm. That falls on my shoulders.”

The Star examined federal and state transportation records dating back to January 2020 to identify where fatal railroad crashes occurred across Missouri. That information was then cross-referenced with several years of MoDOT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Plans to determine whether any of those public crossings had been scheduled for repairs.

The seven crossings where the deadly crashes occurred had appeared on multiple improvement plans and had been identified as needing warning devices, such as lights and gates, The Star found.

Investigators looked over the scene after an Amtrak train crashed into a dump truck near Mendon, Missouri. Four people were killed in the June crash at a crossing that nearby residents had warned was dangerous and in need of safety improvements. © Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com/Kansas City Star/TNS Investigators looked over the scene after an Amtrak train crashed into a dump truck near Mendon, Missouri. Four people were killed in the June crash at a crossing that nearby residents had warned was dangerous and in need of safety improvements.

MoDOT spokeswoman Linda Wilson Horn did not respond directly to questions regarding criticism of why those crossings weren’t repaired years ago or whether a crash can push a location higher on the priority list for upgrades.

The Star found that who is ultimately responsible for crossing upgrades or safety improvements — railroad companies, the state or local governments that maintain adjoining roads — isn’t always clear. Figuring it out can turn into a bureaucratic and legal mess. Frustrated residents who rely on the crossings just want them made safer.

Horn said MoDOT doesn’t mandate improvement plans between private railroads and public crossings, but facilitates them.

The state has “very limited railroad safety crossing funds,” Horn said.

“Crossings are prioritized … using the following criteria: The volume of trains on the section of track, the volume of vehicles using the cross street, the speed of the trains and the speed limit on the cross street, number of passenger trains using the track, sight distance issues, crash history and public concerns.”

And once a project is tagged for improvements, the process can take several years, Horn said.

Officials with three railroad companies told The Star it’s up to the state to decide where improvements are made and when.

“The decision to install warning devices is made by a state’s highway authority — not the individual railroad — after an independent evaluation as well as a review by the Federal Highway Administration,” said Tom Ciuba, vice president of communications for Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services Inc., which operates the Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad. “Prioritization of warning device installation at grade crossings also lies with the state.”

© Neil Nakahodo/Kansas City Star/TNS

In a crash involving that railroad, a freight train with one locomotive and 14 cars hit a tractor-trailer late last year in Cass County, killing the driver, Michael K. Samani, 66, of Lenexa. The impact caused the rig to overturn and catch fire.

That crossing, on Anaconda Road in Harrisonville, was on the state’s list for installation of warning gates.

Connor Spielmaker, media relations manager for Norfolk Southern Railway Co., said the railroads “do not have the authority to install highway traffic control devices.” Norfolk Southern operates the track at two of the crossings identified by The Star.

“Road authorities decide where they want them based on their own criteria,” Spielmaker said. “We do not decide where those automated warning systems are installed.”

Missouri has nearly 4,400 public highway-rail crossings, according to a MoDOT report. Nearly half the public train crossings are not equipped with active warning devices such as bells, flashing lights and gates.

Each year from 2017 to 2021, MoDOT improved the safety features at about 20 of those crossings. Roughly 80% of the funding comes from the federal government. Historically, the average project costs around $400,000.

Anger toward the railroads has intensified since the Amtrak derailment and questions linger as to why they aren’t doing more to make crossings safer — sooner rather than later.

According to common law in most states, including Missouri, the railroad has a joint responsibility at the crossing with the entity responsible for the road, said Nathan Karlin, an attorney with the Pottroff & Karlin law firm in Manhattan, Kansas, which has specialized in train crash cases for decades.

“They can use their own funds to install lights and gates,” Karlin said, as long as they get MoDOT approval and comply with regulations.

“But the railroads don’t do that,” he said. “... They feel like if they start to do it, it might snowball into them actually having to use their own funds to install lights and gates, rather than waiting on the slow bureaucratic process to get federal taxpayer money to install the lights and gates.”

Studies have shown, Karlin said, that increasing or changing a crossing from passive to active, which means installing gates and lights, can reduce the frequency of accidents by up to 90%. Even flashing lights without gates can reduce the frequency of collisions by two-thirds, he said.

Delaying critical improvements, many say, has put lives in danger. And cost the railroads millions of dollars in court decisions and settlements.

A crossing in the city of Purdy, in southwest Missouri, was on the list to get warning devices when an Arkansas & Missouri Railroad freight train struck Francisca Perez Salas’ 2000 Honda on Feb. 19, 2020. The intersection had just a crossbuck sign and an old pedestrian bell.

Officials and residents had warned the state and the railroad about the dangerous crossing for years before Salas, 59, was killed. According to a Highway Patrol report, Salas failed to yield at the crossing. The train, with two locomotives and 29 cars, was traveling 37 mph at the time of the collision, the railroad’s crash report said.

“It’s a blind intersection,” Purdy Fire Chief Nick Mercer told The Star. “It’s surrounded by buildings. You have to be right up at the intersection to see.”

Officials with the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad did not respond to multiple requests asking about the crash and why improvements weren’t made sooner.

The crossing has now been fixed, Mercer said, most likely because of the “large vocal opposition” that demanded improvements.

“All the repairs that we asked for got done,” he said. “But it had sat on the list for a long time.”

Once the work to install the warning devices began, he said, a project that took years to initiate was completed in just days.

Blame thrown at the railroad

In lawsuits filed after those seven crashes in the past 2½ years — including the recent derailment in Chariton County — attorneys blasted railroad officials for not heeding the repeated pleas to fix the intersections.

Passive crossings like the Porche Prairie Crossing are dangerous and subject innocent and helpless train passengers and motorists to extreme and unacceptable safety hazards every single day,” according to a civil suit filed last month by Amtrak passenger Janet Williams, of Dubuque, Iowa.

“ … Defendants BNSF and/or Amtrak have received numerous warnings and notices concerning the subject passive crossing and its danger and pleas to upgrade it with critical life-saving protective devices,” the suit said. “(They) ignored these pleas for safety and continued to subject innocent passengers to extreme and unacceptable danger, as well as members of the public who attempt to navigate this dangerous passive crossing.”

At that crossing in particular, the state and BNSF knew for several years that there was a problem.

The Chariton County Commission first spoke to Spencer, who farms land next to the crossing, in December 2019 about his concerns regarding what he saw as dangers at Porche Prairie. The commission and members of the community had been trying to get improvements ever since.

On May 23, local residents complained to a commissioner that brush was obstructing the view at the crossing, which has a steep grade. The commission contacted MoDOT by email but never received a response, according to a timeline the presiding commissioner provided The Star. A week later, the commission alerted the BNSF roadmaster about the visibility issues.

Then on June 11 — 16 days before the crash — Spencer posted a video on his Facebook page from the crossing that showed a train moving down the tracks at that location.

“We have to cross this with farm equipment to get to several of our fields,” Spencer wrote. “We have been on the RR for several years about fixing the approach by building the road up, putting in signals, signal lights or just cutting the brush back.”

Spencer posted the video, he said, as a way to warn his friends and others in the community about the dangerous crossing and to have a record of what it’s like.

“I wanted my wife to have that as evidence in case something happened to me on that,” Spencer told The Star.

On the day of the train derailment, Spencer posted again on his Facebook page. This time, he shared a photo from the crash scene.

“I felt in my gut this was going to happen,” he wrote. “ I feel terrible for all of the people involved in what I feel could have been an avoidable accident.”

Ben Wilemon, external corporate communications manager for BNSF, said the railway can “make routine repairs to crossings without needing a new agreement with the road authority.” But that’s not the case if more is required.

“If changes are needed, the State and/or local road authority would be included,” Wilemon said. “The installation of new gates or lights at a crossing, however, requires several steps, including a legal agreement before BNSF can proceed with the crossing changes.

“For questions regarding the prioritization of crossing signal upgrades in Missouri, we will defer to MoDOT, as they are the entity that makes that determination.”

Chariton County has two of the crossings where there have been deadly crashes in the past 2½ years. The Star contacted Presiding Commissioner Evan Emmerich last week to ask if there were any updates on when those crossings will be improved or if those project timelines were pushed up after June’s derailment and he said he could not comment.

“Due to pending litigation, we are unable to provide any information at this time,” Emmerich said in an email.

Karlin, one of the attorneys representing family members of Amtrak crash victim Rachelle Cook in a wrongful death lawsuit against BNSF and MS Contracting, whose dump truck collided with the train, said railroads know which crossings need warning devices to be safer. But too often, he said, they wait to do anything until they get that formal letter saying that money has been allocated for the improvement project.

“What we’re seeing with the large freight railroads is they will not even order the lights and gates and all of the circuitry for the lights and gates until they get the authority to proceed,” Karlin said. “So that is a big delay, because they won’t even purchase the equipment until they get that authority.”

Then, the railroads fail to prioritize certain problem crossings and just “put it on their normal maintenance, signal installation schedule,” Karlin said.

“It’s ‘we’ll add it to the bottom of the list, and we’ll get to it when we get to it.’”

Steve Groves, a lawyer who specializes in injury cases involving railroads, is representing the dump truck driver’s widow, Erin Barton, in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against BNSF and Amtrak involving the June 27 crash. During a recent interview with The Star, Groves said railroad providers often skirt responsibility in those cases.

“The railroad always wants to blame the victim and put it on the driver and say that the person should have stopped,” Groves said. “Well, sometimes you can’t. And sometimes because of the way a crossing is set up you can’t see the train until it’s too late — like this one. Because of the angles and because of the steep grade.

“They knew there was going to be a crash someday there. They didn’t know when or who the victims would be. But now we know.”

Groves said he wasn’t surprised by The Star’s analysis of deaths at grade crossings across the state, saying there are many dangerous ones that the railroad has no incentive to fix. He also noted BNSF is profitable — for 2021, the company reported a net income of $7.1 billion — and that there’s nothing stopping the railroad from putting its own money into safety programs.

Considering the financial toll of the disaster in Mendon, Groves said BNSF could have put lights and gates at the crossing and made other safety improvements over and over again for the price of medical bills associated with the crash alone.

“Instead, the railroad rolls the dice, doesn’t provide a safe crossing and then this happens,” Groves said. “And, of course, what do they do? They blame the victim.”

Three days after the derailment in Chariton County, Amtrak and BNSF sued MS Contracting, the trucking company. Blame for the wreck was also cast on driver Billy Barton II, who was among the four killed that day.

“Despite the fact that it was unsafe, careless and reckless to do so because of the clearly visible approaching Amtrak Train 4, Barton failed to yield the right of way to the approaching Amtrak Southwest Chief Train 4,” the lawsuit said. “And instead attempted to cross the grade crossing which resulted in a collision between the Dump Truck and Train 4, causing Train 4 to derail.”

Small communities hit hard

The majority of the problem crossings The Star analyzed are in small rural communities in counties from Webster and Barry in southwest Missouri to Chariton and Randolph in the northern part of the state.

Seven months ago, a 53-year-old man and his 9-year-old grandson were killed and a 12-year-old grandson injured at a railroad crossing in Randolph County that was on a state improvement plan at the time.

When the crash occurred, the county’s presiding commissioner said his mind immediately went to the repairs that were needed at that location.

“It’s like ‘Doggone it, how come we couldn’t have gotten that one done sooner?’” John Truesdell said of his thinking then. “‘… If we could have only went to this. If we only knew that was going to happen, I would have done that last week in place of this one over here.’”

Since then, Truesdell said he does not believe the condition of the crossing played a role in that crash. Yet he said it still serves as a reminder that dangers can exist when locations don’t have the proper warning devices.

“It does need to be repaired, yes,” Truesdell said of his crossing near Clark, Missouri. “Are there clearly problems here? Yes. The railroad knows that.

“... Everybody wants it repaired, but no one is taking the lead. You can’t look at this and not recognize that. Someone has to rise up and take ownership, but the way it’s set up now it’s finger pointing.”

Last year, Joyce Gorsek, 73, was killed in southwest Missouri’s Webster County. That June 13 crash occurred at the Porter Crossing Road in Rogersville, which didn’t have lights, gates or bells. Only crossbuck signs.

According to the railway’s accident report, a freight train with three locomotives and 106 cars struck Gorsek’s southbound vehicle that was on the crossing at noon that day. The train’s speed was 38 mph.

Webster County Presiding Commissioner Paul Ipock said he couldn’t comment on that crossing because of “litigation going on right now.”

Six weeks before Gorsek’s death, a 32-year-old man was injured at that same crossing when his car was hit by a train after it pulled into the intersection, the accident report said. A newspaper story said the man was on his cellphone.

In Pemiscot County, two men — Titusan Townsend, 52, of Columbia, and passenger Ricky Tillman, 51, of Kennett — were killed in August 2020 when a BNSF freight train with three locomotives and 133 cars struck the 2017 Chevy Impala they were in. It was the second crash at that crossing in Hayti, Missouri, in 2½ years.

The train’s speed at the time of the fatal crash was 53 mph. The crossing had no lights, gates or bells, just crossbucks, according to the accident report filed by BNSF with the Federal Railroad Administration.

Townsend’s wife and Tillman’s children filed wrongful death lawsuits against BNSF, the city of Hayti and others.

They accused BNSF of “failing to install gates with flashing lights, signals, despite knowing, or having reason to know, that this particular crossing met the standard railroad industry criteria for an upgrade to flashing light signals with automatic gates for many years before this collision.”

BNSF also “failed to acknowledge its common law duties to recognize dangerous railroad crossings and to take actions to reduce or eliminate the dangers to motorists caused by trains passing through these dangerous crossings, including the Gettings Lane Crossing.”

In the Barry County fatality crash in February 2020, at the crossing where officials and residents had concerns for years, there were also two others injured — Salas’ grandchildren, ages 8 and 3.

And it wasn’t the first crash at that crossing in the small town of Purdy. Two years earlier, an 18-year-old driver was seriously injured there.

Salas’ family filed a lawsuit against the railroad and MoDOT. Mercer, the Purdy fire chief, gave a deposition in the case about the statements he made immediately after the crash regarding what he and others saw as a dangerous crossing.

“Now,” Mercer said recently, “we’ve got gates and lights at that intersection and they also improved the gates and lights at the C highway intersection to also include gates across the crosswalk.”

“... It is crazy that it takes so long.”

©2022 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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