Why Central Texas rail crossings are not the threat they once were


Collisions at road-rail crossings in Central Texas have fallen almost 60 percent since the 1980s.

The number of deaths in such collisions have fallen by a similar amount as crossings see better signals.

Some of the areas worst crossings — in South Austin and San Marcos — have seen few collisions since the 1990s.

The MetroRail engineer didn’t hit his brakes until the car stalled on the tracks up ahead was as close as 100 feet from the front of train.

The high-speed collision in April 2012 pushed the crumpled white sedan 80 yards down the track, killing the 32-year-old man behind the wheel and severely injuring his two boys in the back seat. None of the 128 passengers or the engineer on the train was hurt.

The crash alongside North MoPac Boulevard near Scofield Ridge Parkway raised questions, never fully resolved, about why the car was unable to move beyond the hump-backed crossing, so named because the road sloped considerably on the west side of the tracks. But Capital Metro’s ultimate response to the wreck — the agency in January 2016 closed that private crossing and placed barriers in front of it to prevent its use — aligns with the activist approach that area railroads have taken to such collisions over the years.

The result has been that such railroad crossings in Central Texas, though by no means risk-free, are much safer than they were a quarter-century ago.

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According to an American-Statesman review of more than 40 years of train-vehicle accident reports from the Federal Railroad Administration, the greater Austin area’s 462 at-grade crossings include no unusually deadly ones such as the crossing in Biloxi, Miss., where four Texas tourists died March 7. At least, not any longer.

And based on records filed by railroad operators with the railroad agency since 1975, the rate of collisions between trains and cars or trucks in Travis, Hays, Williamson and Bastrop counties has fallen by almost 60 percent since the 1980s. This has occurred even as the area’s population — and thus the number of cars on the road — has tripled since 1985.

Fatalities, too, have fallen, from about 1.8 people killed each year in those four counties from 1975 through 1999, to an average of 0.7 annual fatalities at railroad crossings from 2000 to 2016. These statistics don’t include incidents or deaths from what the railroad industry dubs “trespassers,” typically people walking on tracks.

That improvement at crossings since the turn of the century has several causes, including federal, state and railroad company spending to add active crossing signals — blinking lights and gates — where previously there might have been only static “crossbuck” signs that are easier to overlook or ignore.

In Austin, the railroads, the city and Capital Metro have established “quiet zones” under federal rules that include medians and four-barrier gates making it difficult for a motorist to get on the tracks when a train is approaching.

“Crossings have been a major focus for Union Pacific,” that railroad’s spokeswoman, Raquel Espinoza, said. “The improvement comes down to three things: education, enforcement and engineering.”

The Federal Highway Administration since 1987 has had a grant program largely dedicated to railroad crossing improvements, one that this fiscal year will allocate $230 million to states. Texas is set to get almost $19 million this year, according to the highway administration.

That Biloxi crossing, where a bus became stuck because of the steeply humped shape of the street on either side of the tracks, had had 17 previous vehicle-train collisions since 1976, including three in one particularly violent week in 1978. Two people in vehicles had been killed there, in 1983 and 2003. Last week’s accident caused the deaths of a Lockhart couple, a Bastrop woman and a man from Sealy, and it left 35 others in the hospital with a range of injuries.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Bus with Bastrop tourists hit by train in Biloxi

Central Texas has 11 rail crossings, including five in Taylor, marked with the “low road clearance” signs that warn of a potentially problematic situation for tractor-trailers and buses because of a humped crossing. But none appear to have been the site of numerous collisions. Some had no vehicle-train wrecks in the four decades of available records, and none of the accidents that did occur were fatal.

However, the absence of a low road clearance sign doesn’t necessarily mean that the profile of the intersecting street isn’t outside federal guidelines specifying that the road shouldn’t dip more than three inches within 30 feet of the tracks. Federal records don’t make it clear how many road-rail crossings in Central Texas fall outside that standard.

Of the state’s more than 11,000 at-grade crossings — spots with no underpass, meaning that cars and trucks must drive over the tracks to proceed — just 60 have low road clearance signs, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. That amounts to about 1 in every 200 crossings.

Quiet zones are safer, too

The metro area, according to the federal records, had several road-rail intersections with a notable number of vehicle-train collisions since 1975, the earliest year that the accident reports can be accessed on the railroad agency site. But in each case, including two in South Austin and three in San Marcos, the accidents all but stopped after the 1990s.

West Mary Street’s crossing of the Union Pacific tracks had nine collisions and two deaths between 1976 and 1998, records show, but none since. A bit to the south, where busy West Oltorf Street intersects the tracks near South Lamar Boulevard, there were eight vehicle-train collisions between 1976 and 1995, with two deaths. Then, the collisions ceased.

All of the Union Pacific crossings through South Austin now have either overpasses (such as at Barton Springs Road, William Cannon Drive and Slaughter Lane), or concrete medians or rows of plastic pylons on the street to either side of the tracks, signaling to an aggressive driver that he should stay put once the railroad gates come down rather than trying to drive around them before the train arrives.

Those installations occurred over the past decade as part of a program under federal rules: With those safety improvements in place, train engineers can refrain from blowing their train horn each time they approach an intersecting street.

When Capital Metro began its commuter rail service in 2010 on 32 miles of track between Leander and downtown Austin, it installed four-barrier gates at many of its crossings in East and North Austin, and in Leander. That allowed it to institute quiet zones as well, a critical public relations move because the passenger train service during the day forced the transit agency and its freight contractor to run freight trains overnight.

The agency’s track as its crosses Koenig Lane, a major crosstown artery in North Austin, has been the scene of three collisions since 2014, records show.

Fewer crashes in other counties

In Hays County, which has just 43 at-grade crossings, there have been 113 vehicle-train collisions since 1975. That’s a handful more than Travis County, despite Hays having only about a third as many at-grade crossings. The reason: San Marcos.

Union Pacific tracks run through the middle of town on two paths, not far from the Texas State University campus, and the long waits for passing freights at the crossings have eternally frustrated the city’s drivers. And for much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the trains were a clear and ever-present danger.

Vehicles using CM Allen Parkway had 10 collisions with trains between 1975 and 1995, and three deaths, but since then, there has been just one collision in 2014. Aquarena Springs Boulevard likewise had 10 incidents between 1975 and 1993 (with one fatality), but then no more. And Hopkins Street, which is known as Texas 80 in some parts of its run, had 10 vehicle-train collisions between 1976 and 1984, including one in which three people died, but since then just one in 2000.

Espinoza, the Union Pacific spokeswoman, couldn’t say what specific improvements might have been made in San Marcos.

Williamson County, with 143 grade crossings, has seen more diffused threats, with 161 collisions at more than 60 crossings. The most troublesome: University Avenue/Texas 29 in Georgetown, with nine collisions. Only one, however, occurred after 1996. There have been no deaths at that crossing.

Bastrop County, despite having the most at-grade crossings among the four counties, has seen just one death in a vehicle-train collision since 1975. The driver of that truck, killed in August 1990 on a clear afternoon in Bastrop, was hit by a Union Pacific freight train at a private crossing.

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