Railway crossing safety upgrades planned for the next four years in the Ozarks

Published: Jul. 1, 2022 at 6:56 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 1, 2022 at 7:49 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - The tragic Amtrak passenger train accident in Mendon, Missouri, this week was yet another reminder of the vulnerability of railway crossings that don’t have lights or crossing arms in place. The train struck a dump truck blocking the crossing, killing four people (including the truck driver) and injuring around 150 train passengers.

Mike Spencer, who lives near the crossing, had been warning officials about the need for upgrades for three years. There are many similar locations all over rural America known as “uncontrolled” crossings, where there’s nothing more than a sign telling drivers they’re coming up to the tracks and leaving it up to them to spot a train coming.

The Missouri Department of Transportation included the Mendon railway crossing in its future “State Freight and Rail Plan” issued in January. The state plans to install lights and gates. The project hasn’t started.

“The price of fixing this was the cost of lives,” Spencer said.

The railroad industry plays a big part in Missouri’s economy. According to the information in the “State Freight and Rail Plan,” the value of freight-transported goods traveling in the state totaled $552.3 billion in 2018, which accounted for 52 percent of all the freight brought through Missouri.

Twenty-two rail carriers operate 4,362 miles of rail network within the state. There are about 3,800 public highway-rail crossings in Missouri, and determining where safety improvement upgrades are done is based on train and traffic speeds, accident history, and sight distance.

Plus, of course, funding. With the average cost of adding lights and crossing arms running between $250,000-$300,000 for each project, the state can only do about 25-30 per year.

MoDOT’s anticipated project schedule includes a couple of Springfield crossing upgrades in its latest plans covering the next four years. One is at National and Division, where lights are already in place. But the plan is for new lights, crossing arms, and intersection improvements costing a million dollars.

Another Springfield-related crossing improvement is at County Road 140 near the Deer Lake Estates and KOA campground. The crossing is marked with signs. The upward slope makes it hard to see the area. The state plans to add a gate at a cost of $300,000.

In Strafford, Farm Rd. 245 and State Highway OO intersection has a curvy road coming up to its crossing with minimal signage. But lights and crossing arms are on the way at the cost of $250,000.

“In Strafford, there are two railroad crossings that already have safety arms,” said Strafford City Administrator Martha Smartt. “This one doesn’t, and it has a unique curved approach to the crossing, so it does require more due diligence on the driver to make sure that their path is clear to cross safely. As Strafford grows, and we are growing very rapidly right now, in time, there could be even more traffic that would consistently cross that railroad crossing. Hence, we are very excited to see some safety mechanisms being looked into for improvements there.”

Among the other railway crossing upgrades in this part of the state that MoDOT has in its 2022-2026 Anticipated Project Schedule:

--Everton (Dade County) install lights and gates at East Dade 162 ($250,000)

--Bois D’Arc (Greene County) install gates at Route UU ($250,000)

--Verona (Lawrence County) install lights and gates at County Roads 130 and 140 ($500,000)

--Galena (Stone County) install lights and gates at Railey Creek Rd. South ($250,000)

--Willow Springs (Howell County) install lights and gates at County Road 5500 ($250,000)

--Clinton (Henry County) install new crossing surfaces at nine railroad crossings ($585,000)

--Washburn (Barry County) install lights, gates, and surface at State Highway 90 ($300,000)

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission will be taking updrafts of more projects when they meet again on July 6.

In addition, President Biden and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Friday that more than $573 million in grant funding would be made available this year to improve safety at railroad crossings across the country.

Over the next five years, the federal funding will total $3 billion, and while it’s too early to know how much of what will make its way to Missouri, there’s no doubt that many of the state’s railway crossings are still in need of upgrades and are accidents waiting to happen.

“It’s terribly tragic and heartbreaking,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy of the accident in Mendon.

Homendy pointed out that the NTSB has been calling for better warnings on uncontrolled crossings like the one in Mendon since 1998. Last year more than 200 people died in over 2,100 railway crossing accidents.

“We continue to push for infrastructure improvement like gates, bells, and whistles just hoping they do get installed,” she said. “There are many different ways of addressing safety at crossings. But doing nothing is not the right answer.”

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