No upgrade at deadly rail crossing

Sheila Blackmon
Meridian Star
Tuesday, April 3, 2001; Page 1A

HICKORY -- Town officials here say a recent reassessment of a deadly downtown railroad crossing will not lead to a crossing upgrade.

Hickory Mayor Wayne Griffith said he talked to Steven Edwards, Mississippi Department of Transportation's rails engineer, about reassessing the Smede Street crossing - the site of three fatalities since November 1999.

Trinette Wilson and Kirk Buntyn were killed in late 1999 after their cars collided with Kansas City Southern freight trains.  Sidney Wagner died in February when his tractor and a Kansas City Southern freight train collided.

"They did reassess and we did not get into a new category," Griffith said.

"How, I don't know.  He did say there were a couple crossings on the coast that were not fully assessed and there is a possibility we might be included if they don't make it."

Marlin Collier, director of intermodal planning for MDOT, said Federal Railroad Administration officials developed a mathematical formula for prioritizing crossing upgrades.

"By federal regulations, we must construct the crossing protection projects based on this priority system," Collier said.

"We send them the data in that formula - the number of accidents, number of trains through there, the type of road it crosses, amount of traffic on the road.  They evaluate potential risk of accidents then send the list back."

He said Mississippi has 2,800 crossings and 600 have lights or lights and gates.  MDOT can fund about 15 crossing upgrades each year so they pick the highest priority projects, he said.

Collier said MDOT officials agreed to take new traffic counts at the Smede Street crossing to see if it raised the crossing's priority.  He said he, too, got a response from Edwards.

"The railroad right of way takes precedence, and the railroad has to agree to it even after we agree to allocate the money," Collier said.

"They don't usually do the crossing if it's not high on the priority list because they would be subject to liability if they didn't upgrade a higher one and there was an accident."

He said union contracts say railroad employees must do the work - so even if town officials agreed to fund the project, railroad officials might not agree to upgrade the Smede Street crossing.

He said railroad officials might fear maintenance on the upgraded Smede Street crossing would divert their employees' attention from crossings higher on the priority list.  He said the railroad company might not have enough employees to do an extra upgrade above those on the top of MDOT's list.

Town officials erected new signs on the approaches to the crossing in late February.  They painted a warning on the pavement on one approach and have received reflectors they ordered to construct speed bumps, but Griffith said rain has delayed the project.  As soon as the weather permits, the project will resume, he said.

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