While sitting in my car on Frederick Boulevard in Portsmouth, Virginia (VA) watching a CSX train cutting across this major artery in the city at a highway grade crossing. The initial train speed looked to be about 35-40 miles per hour and the traffic on the road was traveling about the same. The only signage at this crossing is a cross buck that reads: Railroad Crossing. There are no gates protecting traffic from running up in front of the train. CSX Railroad has put up some flashing red lights but behind two or three other vehicles I cannot see them. I have got my windows rolled up because the air conditioning is blowing on a hot summer morning and I cannot hear the train. Often, there is a rule that when coming through a city they do not blow their whistle so as not to bother the neighbors. It amazes me how dangerous this crossing is. I am a personal injury lawyer who regularly sues CSX Railroad on behalf of injured railroad workers and drivers of cars who are hit at crossings. So, I am more aware of the danger of highway grade crossing in our area cities like Norfolk, Virginia (VA) where I live and Newport News, Virginia (VA) where I regularly practice law.
This intersection is just before the on-ramp for the major highway coming into downtown Portsmouth and headed out to Suffolk, Virginia (VA) which is Interstate 264 (I-264). My main concern driving on this road is going to be getting up to freeway speed just beyond the railroad tracks. The neighborhood that I have just passed has lots of homes. The new Wal-Mart store is nearby, just back a block up the road, which has increased the traffic in mid-town Portsmouth. This grade crossing is a recipe for disaster.
The law in Virginia (VA) says that the driver of a car, crossing the railroad tracks is only supposed to look and listen for any trains. There is no obligation to stop. I have recently double-checked this by looking at the DMV driving manual for Virginia (VA). Other states like Maryland (MD) or North Carolina (NC) might have a different rule. When the city and the railroad agree to a rule that the engineer does not have to blow the train whistle on the locomotive when coming through city crossings, it means that the driver probably cannot hear the train. Contrary to what the railroads’ defense lawyers will tell you, you cannot always hear a train rushing by. There are many factors that cause the sound to travel in unexpected ways. I rolled down my window and was surprised that the train just 30 yards away was so quiet.
As far as being able to see the train, not only is my view blocked by other motorists, particularly bigger trucks and SUV’s, but there are also a series of buildings sitting right next to the railroad track, blocking the view to my right from the direction where the freight train is coming. These sort of obstacles to view are dangers that the railroads and their safety experts know about or should know about. However, the average driver does not really know the nature of the risk of obscured sight lines and cannot do anything about it.
The CSX train crew that is passing through this intersection has got tank cars with who knows what kinds of chemicals. If a car were to make a mistake and get up on the tracks in front of this train there could easily be a derailment, spilling toxins in this neighborhood. At a minimum the unlucky person driving the vehicle would likely be seriously injured or killed. When a train collides with a car, the car is going to get mangled because the train locomotive and each car weighs hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Obviously, the property damage totaling the vehicle is the least of the concerns to the person who gets hurt in a grade crossing accident and their family. As a FELA lawyer, I am familiar with these dangers but the many motorists who pass by these thousands of inadequately protected crossings across America each day probably have far less idea about the risks than I do. Also, the conductor on the train cannot do anything to help the motorist because they are required to run at as close to their speed limit as they can. Also, the way train brakes work, they cannot slow down even if they see a car coming up on the tracks in time to avoid hitting the car. Usually, the transportation crew from the railroad feel terrible and ever suffer psychologically with problems like post traumatic stress disorder when they see someone injured or possibly even ending up dead as a result of a highway grade crossing accident.
What can we do about this? If you drive during your daily commute by, or live near a dangerous railroad crossing or one whose safety you question, write to your elected officials and the railroad to complain. The railroad should send someone out to study the crossing and see what would be the best combination of warnings and signs to keep the public safe. They will not do this unless we the people who live near these railroad crossings force them to actively look at them and inspect them for the safety of people on the road crossing the tracks.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the regulatory agency of the federal government charged with monitoring rail safety, is too often cozy with the railroad companies and will not act unless forced to. Likewise, a lot of elected officials get big dollar contributions from the corporate officers for Norfolk Southern, CSX and Union Pacific. They need to be reminded that their voters and the citizens have a legitimate right to reasonable safety and that not all decisions in the transportation area should be made in favor of the rail industry’s special interests. If nothing else, when you make your written complaint to the elected officials and the railroad about the danger of a crossing, they will not be able to deny that people told them that there was an issue when someone else gets in a wreck at the crossing. The next family whose loved one has died or been harmed at the crossing will be thankful that you tried to tell the railroad about the problem. Maybe the railroad will even fix the crossing before the next accident.