On that dark Friday night in May, a white crossing marker and a stop sign at the top of an uphill curve on Summit Ridge Road indicated a railroad crossing there. But there were no gates, no bells and no lights to signal a train’s approach.
The crossing would appear suddenly to anyone driving north. “You can’t see the tracks,” local resident Bobby Davis said.
People who live in this northeast Georgia community knew that. But three young adults visiting from Cobb County did not. Their northbound Mazda RX8 crossed the tracks on the night of May 3 at about 10 mph — and was broadsided by an Amtrak train going more than 60 mph.
Driver Areale Nunn, 22, and passengers Erich Boecklbauer, 23, and Crystal Crews, 20, all died as the locomotive slammed the little car 200 feet into a ravine, where it burned. Nunn and Boecklbauer had planned to marry, a lawyer for the families said.
Georgia has more than 5,000 public rail crossings, and more than half — about 3,360 — are “ungated,” meaning they have no drop-down bar to stop traffic, according to the state. Many are in remote, lightly traveled locations, though they can be found in metro Atlanta and on main rail lines such as the Norfolk Southern track that Amtrak plies near Toccoa.
» INTERACTIVE MAP: Metro Atlanta's ten most hazardous rail crossings
The state has a running list of crossings slated to get gates, but the process can take years. Getting other improvements such as lights, advance signage or better visibility can be complicated by fragmented responsibility among railroads and local, state and federal governments.
Three or four dozen Georgians are injured or killed in rail crossing collisions each year. Last year seven people died and 40 more were hurt — a jump in the total from 2011, though within the range of recent years. It’s not a big enough number to spark much outcry, and some level of driver error typically is involved.
That’s scant solace to relatives of those killed, or to local residents and officials whose fears of tragedy waiting to happen come true.
“You can be on the tracks before you know it in the dark of night,” Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley said of the Toccoa crossing. “A gate would certainly make all the difference in the world there.”
Joseph Neal, a lawyer for the families of the three killed, said Norfolk Southern and Amtrak “knew for years, if not decades, that this was a dangerous unguarded railroad crossing with serious visibility problems.”
In fact, the state decides when to upgrade crossings and had designated the Summit Ridge location for gates and requested engineering plans from Norfolk Southern in July 2012. But such plans usually take months to complete and a contract to install a gate system was only issued in June, a few weeks after the deadly crash. Work is underway now.
The minimum required marking for a rail crossing is a white “crossbucks” sign that also means yield. Regular stop signs are also at many crossings, added by state or local jurisdictions.
The federal government funds rail crossing improvements, but the state determines where to use the money, and railroads generally install any equipment under a reimbursement plan. Railroads also are responsible for operation and maintenance of lights and gates.
Cities, counties or even private groups may pony up their own money to pay for gates, but that is not common.
Georgia gets about $8 million annually in federal money for rail crossing safety and adds gates and other devices to a few dozen locations a year, based on a calculus of train and vehicle traffic, prior incidents and other factors, said Michael Bolden, a Georgia Department of Transportation utilities engineer in charge of a three-person section that oversees rail safety. The process is designed to be driven by objective data rather than lobbying or anecdotal concerns.
Gate systems can cost $250,000 to $300,000 apiece.
“At the rate we’re going … you’re looking at 100 years” to gate all Georgia crossings, Bolden said, although he added that is not the goal because some crossings are on unused rail lines or are too remote to ever justify installation.
A matter of priorities
As with many matters of public safety, it boils down to money and priorities, said Spectrum Economics president Chris Pflaum, who has studied the cost-benefit analysis for rail crossing improvements.
“You have a limited budget dedicated to highway safety. You want to spend those dollars so as to save the most lives,” he said.
Trucks, for instance, are “much more dangerous to the public than trains,” Pflaum said. “Gating crossings is an emotional thing. But when you get to the cold, hard statistics, it is very different.”
Georgia has among the most public crossings of any state. As one of the top 10 states for crossing collisions from 2006 to 2008, it was ordered by the federal government to develop a five-year rail crossing action plan.
GDOT’s plan, completed in late 2011, “was the same plan” it had before, Bolden said.
“This didn’t accelerate anything,” he said, because there was no funding increase accompanying the requirement for the plan.
Crossing safety has improved greatly since the 1973 federal Highway Act established a dedicated funding source for safety improvements.
Fatalities in Georgia fell from more than 50 in 1973 to fewer than 10 in each of the last five years — a decline that’s even sharper when growth in population and traffic is considered.
Still, the state’s total of 47 highway-rail crossing deaths or injuries in 2012 was up from 34 in 2011, 40 in 2010 and 42 in 2009. The increase continues so far in 2013. The state logged seven deaths through May including the Toccoa youths, already matching fatalities for all of 2012.
“This year we just started off bad and we hope it gets better,” Bolden said.
Deaths and injuries are up in a number of states this year, Bolden said, despite the long-term improvement.
Driver error blamed
Norfolk Southern spokesman Rick Harris said more road traffic and freight transportation as the economy recovers could be one explanation.
“But the basic answer to the question gets to driver behavior and driver responsibility,” he said. The company declined to comment specifically on the Toccoa crash, citing potential litigation.
Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen agrees that driver caution is the best weapon against crossing collisions. But after a local woman and her 1-month-old baby were killed last year at a crossing near Robins Air Force Base that had lights but no gates, Shaheen said, he “publicly went out and took it on as a personal project” to get gates quickly installed.
The May 2012 crash at Ignico Drive was the 13th collision between a vehicle and a train at that crossing in 11 years — killing a total of four people and injuring eight. Like the crossing near Toccoa, the Ignico Drive crossing was already on the list to get gates, but Shaheen was told it would take about a year to finish the project.
“That wasn’t acceptable,” he said. After Norfolk Southern and GDOT were contacted, Shaheen said, the railroad accelerated the work and gates were installed by August of that year.
The baby’s father — who was driving and survived — was indicted on charges of driving under the influence of marijuana and other violations, but Shaheen said that didn’t lessen the public threat.
“Everybody’s got to work together for safety on our roads,” Shaheen said. “I’ve got to protect those people at Robins Air Force Base.”
Automatic gates are more than 80 percent more effective and flashing lights are greater than 60 percent more effective than crossings with neither, according to a Federal Highway Administration document.
Even gates do not remove risk, however. While many Georgia deaths or injuries are at ungated crossings, a significant number occur at those with active signals. Drivers sometimes ignore lights and bells or try to get across the tracks before gates drop.
Local pressure important
Nor does daily familiarity with a crossing prevent tragedies.
Thomas Ward and a work associate died in 2007 when their vehicle was hit by a train at an ungated crossing in Gordon County near Dalton, not far from his home.
“A lot of people who drive very well have to navigate bad situations,” his widow, Sandy Ward, said. “We all knew (that crossing) was bad. We just took caution.”
Ward said her husband was driving a work truck with limited rear visibility along a road that parallels the tracks. Thomas Ward had just turned right and climbed an immediate incline to the crossing when the train, which had been approaching from behind, struck his truck.
For more than five years since the crash, Ward advocated to have the crossing moved — which was already being considered — and gates added.
This June, the Gordon County Commission approved a budget including money to relocate the crossing in the next year, with gates to be installed with federal funding — “hopefully in time to save someone’s life,” Ward said.
Vicky Moore, who co-founded a foundation called Angels on Track to increase awareness of rail safety and raise money for gates at crossings in Ohio after her son and two of his friends died at one in 1995, said citizen involvement at the local level is important.
“Local communities need to put pressure on local officials to ensure the crossings are safe,” she said.
In Toccoa, Davis, who lives near the accident site, said he tried years ago to get improved visibility at the crossing over two sets of tracks.
“I travel that road every day. I’ve been startled many times by trains coming there,” he said. “All the neighbors in there, when we have guests, we tell them, ‘Be sure to stop for the train.’ … We even tell the pizza delivery driver.
“I speculated that it would be some out-of-town person that was unfamiliar. That’s exactly what happened.”
John Merck, the developer of a subdivision near the crossing, said Norfolk Southern declined requests to blast the rocks that limit the view to the west, or to allow others to.
“Unfortunately, those three people lost their lives, and they could have been saved had there been gates,” Davis said. “When you have a limited sight situation, what does it matter what it costs? What’s the value of these three young lives when you’re comparing it to the cost of these gates?”
It’s still unclear what led the driver, Areale Nunn, to cross in front of the Amtrak train. A Federal Railroad Administration investigation is underway. Amtrak said the train had its lights on. Video from the train shows the horn was sounding, according to the Georgia State Patrol.
The Mazda appeared to be going about 10 mph and did not stop, slow down or speed up, according to a State Patrol review of the train video. The crash report said the car failed to “yield to the oncoming train.”
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman said toxicology test results for Nunn are pending. Nunn had pled guilty to a DUI charge after being stopped at a checkpoint in Bibb County two years ago. The State Patrol report on the Toccoa crash said it was “unknown” if alcohol or drug use was suspected.
Debra Reeves, the mother of passenger Crystal Crews, thinks the crash should never have happened.
“They had a right to life and it was taken away by some railroad track that didn’t have the procedures that should have been there,” Reeves said. “I think that there needs to be something to stop this.”
Reeves can’t stop thinking about what happened at the crossing that night, and what her daughter saw or heard.
“You just wonder, was she screaming for you?” Reeves said. “It’s horrible. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare to get a call from somebody telling you they think they have your daughter in that morgue.”
Rail crossing safety tips
Because more than half of the rail crossings in Georgia do not have gates, drivers must look and listen at them to avoid collisions. Some crossings have stop or yield signs, but others just have X-shaped railroad crossing signs called crossbucks.
— Always expect a train. Freight trains do not follow set schedules.
— Keep in mind that sound insulation in cars, along with other noise like air conditioning, the engine or the radio, could muffle the sound of a train horn.
— At crossings with just crossbucks, the crossbucks should be considered the same as yield signs. It isn’t safe to stop closer than 15 feet from a rail. Look both ways and if there is no train coming, cross quickly.
— If you see a train approaching, wait for it to pass before crossing the tracks.
— Never race a train to the crossing, because “even if you tie, you lose,” as rail safety education organization Operation Lifesaver puts it.
— A train can be three feet wider than the tracks on both sides. Do not walk or stop near the tracks.
— If your vehicle stalls on the tracks when a train is coming, get out and move away from the tracks in the direction from which the train is coming. If you run in the same direction as the train, you could be injured by flying debris.
— Do not drive around lowered gates; it is illegal and dangerous. If you think a signal is malfunctioning, call the 1-800 number posted by the crossing signal.
Source: Operation Lifesaver, Congressional Research Service report.