Rail safety flawed Rail crossing protections remain a concern

 

Report shows lack of inspection Railroad accidents are all to common in St. Landry Parish

 

On a hot August afternoon in 2001, Marian Kemp loaded her four young daughters into the family car for the trip home after a visit to the Bienville Parish Library in Arcadia.

Minutes later, Kitti Kemp, 5, was near death. Three-year-old Lillian Kemp's skull was crushed. Daughters Melanie Prud'Homme, 10, and LaShara James, 6, were seriously injured. And, Marian, 32, was clinging to life.

At 3:30 p.m. on that 100-degree, clear summer day, a Kansas City Southern Railway Co. train - powered by two locomotives, carrying 110 cars and traveling at least 35 mph - collided with the Ford Expedition Marian was driving.

The downtown Arcadia rail crossing had been newly equipped with flashing lights and safety gates - but they were left disabled at the railroad company's order, according to court records.

The (Shreveport) Times' investigation of federal train safety records reveals that's not the only time KCS or another rail carrier appears to have disabled a rail crossing warning system, leaving a crossing unprotected and drivers and their passengers vulnerable to a train/vehicle crash.

Federal Railroad Administration inspectors have discovered those and nearly 1,500 other flaws in safety equipment at statewide highway/rail crossings - including ones in Acadiana - between 1997 and 2007.

Few of those defects, even the most serious and blatant, resulted in punitive action to the responsible railroad. More often, the railroad involved simply was told to fix the problem but didn't have to report when it was corrected.

A majority of crossings in the state, including those involved in fatal accidents, weren't inspected by federal officials between 2003 and 2007. Many crossings haven't been inspected in more than 10 years.

That's because the railroad administration mainly relies on railroad companies to self-police when it comes to inspecting, testing and maintaining safety equipment at rail crossings nationwide, a practice that outrages crossing safety advocates and families of victims killed in train/vehicle crashes.

"That's kind of like the fox watching the hen house," said state Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, who had a friend involved in a crash. Johnson authored a law passed during the 2008 Legislature that created a statewide program authorizing as many as six workers to inspect railroad facilities and paperwork.

KCS declined to comment on the Arcadia crash or respond to other questions. There are no federal records indicating any wrongdoing or action taken against the rail carrier as a result of the Arcadia crash.

However, other railroad representatives contacted said guaranteeing the safety of workers and the public is a preeminent concern. Rail companies regularly provide compliance reports to the railroad administration and their rail crossings are subject to federal inspection at any time, they said.

"Safety is a top priority for Union Pacific," wrote Union Pacific Railway spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza-Williams in an e-mail response. "All UP employees share in the responsibility of operating a safe and efficient railroad."

Federal officials insist rail crossing safety is ensured through an effective inspection program and efforts to secure rail carrier cooperation. They underscore, however, the inspections are just one part of a multifaceted approach - enforcement, education and engineering - jointly shared by other regulatory agencies, railroads and citizens themselves.

"Given the resources allocated for this purpose and given the total number of accident incidents, we believe our regulatory oversight contributes responsibly to the overall level of safety," railroad administration spokesman Warren Flatau said. "However, one collision or fatality is one too many and that underscores the need for a multifacility approach."

Federal records analyzed

The Times reviewed hundreds of federal inspection records and other documents related to Louisiana rail crossings from 1997 to 2007. The analysis included all inspections furnished by the Federal Railroad Administration through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those records were provided as electronic photocopies, which were downloaded and put into a Microsoft Access database and analyzed.

They showed:

At least 1,473 defects, from burned-out light bulbs to poor maintenance of flashing lights units, warning system failure or malfunction, and more, found at statewide crossings with active warning systems.

Despite such violations as failing to report warning system failures and disabling safety equipment without warning highway drivers, few railroads were penalized by federal inspectors for their actions.

Eight of 10 rail crossings involved in some of the area's most recent fatal accidents were not inspected by federal officials in at least 11 years. Those include the Ruston crossing at which 19-year-old Hannah McFarland, Miss Minden, was killed in June 2007.

Between 2000 and 2007, warning systems at statewide crossings failed to properly activate in at least 179 instances when a train passed through. Some of those crossings, such as one near Blanchard, had multiple activation failures.

At least 112 times railroad companies failed to file required paperwork, perform mandatory tests, or fulfill other federal records and reporting requirements.

Flashing lights that weren't visible to drivers or poorly maintained lights whose effectiveness, as a result, was questionable were among the most commonly cited defects. Other frequent defects included a component in the warning system that caused failure or malfunction, warning system plans that were not accurate or posted at the crossing as required, and signs that were not in good condition.

Railroads vs. citizens

Activist Vicky Moore, who heads the rail safety advocacy group Angels on Track in Salineville, Ohio, says few railroad inspectors - Louisiana has just one assigned to most of the state - and a system that relies on railroads to self-report their mistakes means many defects aren't noticed and repaired. As a result, drivers are left defenseless.

Moore and others say they are confident more independent rail crossing inspections would find higher numbers of defects and more instances where railroads failed to file required paperwork, report warning system failures or malfunctions, or properly test and inspect warning systems.

"You have to depend on the railroad to say their equipment isn't working properly and accept responsibility for the maintenance," said Moore, whose 16-year-old son Ryan was killed at an Ohio crossing in 1995. "When (an accident) happens, naturally, they are going to blame the driver ... when they know the equipment isn't working properly."

Warning system data recorders could show if a crossing's safety equipment was properly functioning at the time of an accident. But seldom are these analyzed by police or federal investigators. Railroad companies often keep proprietary control of the data and are reticent to share, Moore said.

Inspection program working

Federal officials are candid about their inability to inspect all crossings and acknowledge they are powerless to force railroads to report when problems are corrected. But said they are confident issues are properly resolved.

"A lot of the signal defects are fixed on the spot and inspectors witness the correction," said Tom McFarlin, railroad administration staff director in the signal and control division. "Virtually all of those are fixed by (railroad) maintenance folks that are right there."

Flautau also pointed out that while alarming, activation failures and related warning system malfunctions are rare and seldom cited as accident causes.

"Year to year, it's something like less than 1 percent of these incidents would be caused by that type of malfunction," Flatau said. "One of the things we do know is that half of the collisions that do occur are at locations that have active lights and gates. There are, unfortunately, some motorists that are impatient or exercise poor judgment and take unnecessary chances and in some circumstances, unfortunately, accidents happen."

That does little to assuage the families and friends of victims killed or injured in train/vehicle accidents.

Kitti Kemp died as a result of her injuries. Sister Lillian Kemp was left with serious brain damage, showing signs of dementia or early Alzheimer's disease. Sisters Melanie Prud'Homme and LaShara James recovered from their injuries but bear the emotional scars of that crash.

And the girls' mother, Marian, was left severely disabled, semi-comatose, partially paralyzed on her right side, and unable to communicate, court records and newspaper accounts revealed.

KCS eventually agreed to pay the family $37.5 million in October 2006 to help take care of Marian and her children. The money is small compensation for a family wrecked by a preventable accident, one of the family's lawyers said.

"This particular case was really heartbreaking - it was so senseless and it did so much damage," said Johnny Dollar, a Monroe-based lawyer, who represented the Kemp family in a lawsuit against KCS. "They've been through a horrible ordeal."

Problems with maintenance of flashing lights and safety gates on Louisiana's railroad crossings are not a serious concern for St. Landry Parish for the sad reason that the parish doesn't have many.

Of the parish's roughly 340 crossings, only a handful have flashing lights or gates. For the rest, the only warning device is a set of crossed bars on a pole, with the word railroad on one bar and crossing on the other.

This isn't good news. Statistics show that accidents at non-gated railroad crossings are seven times higher than for crossings with gates.

Railroad accidents, especially fatal accidents, are all too common in St. Landry Parish. In 2004, the parish led the state, which that year led the nation in crossing fatalities.

In 2007, the last year for which information is available, Louisiana ranked sixth in the nation in the number of crossing accidents, behind only Texas, California, Illinois, Indiana and Georgia. When considered on a per-capita basis, Louisiana remains near the top of the list in terms of railroad-vehicle fatalities.

While aggressive enforcement helped St. Landry Parish move off the top of the state accident list, it still reported about a half dozen such accidents last year.

One solution may be more gated crossings, but Bill Fontenot, district III engineer with the state Department of Transportation and Development, said they don't come cheap.

While maintaining the crossings is the job of the railroad, installing them is the responsibility of the DODT. With the state facing an $11 billion backlog in needed road projects, Fontenot said crossing upgrades need to be prioritized.

"Depending on where it's located, crossing protection can cost anywhere from a couple of $100,000 to $700,000," Fontenot said. "For a typical two lane road, with bells and signals, it costs about $250,000 to $300,000."

For crossings at major city streets - where most accidents happen - that total can run from half a million to $1 million each.

In the meantime, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Det. Eddie Thibodeaux, who handles local railroad safety issues, urged motorists to use caution.

Regardless of who is at fault in a car-train collision, it is always the motorist who loses.

Also, because of the extreme weight of railroad trains, Thibodeaux said the train's momentum means they really can't stop.

"All the engineer can do is pull the emergency brake. It is going to take the train a mile to stop - that's 18 football fields. They are helpless, they can't swerve," Thibodeaux said.

 

dailyworld.com