by Donna McCollum
There are more than 11,000 railroad crossings in Texas. Last year, 26 drivers died across the state in accidents involving trains. If every motorist saw railroad crossings from Union Pacific engineer Ronnie McKinney's perspective, they might just stop when a train approaches. "I look to see if anybody might be trying to come around the gates or anything like that," said McKinney as he pulled the horn lever, sending a blaring sound to nearby motorists. Despite the alert, when the crossing lights come on, motorists hit the gas. McKinney shakes his head as a pickup crosses right as the crossing arms lower. "That truck didn't even slow down for them."
Motorists were forced to stop when police officers were alerted of the violation. Inside the engine cab, Lt. Dan Taravella radios to a patrol car parked near the crossing. "It's going to be a white dodge pickup, just went west bound," said Taravella.
Officers nabbed several at a time near the south loop's industrial area. McKinney said that's a big mistake. "They don't realize that a grain train coming out here weighs between 10 and 12,000 tons and they cannot stop for 'em." How far it takes to stop a train depends on the terrain and the weight but, for an average train going an average speed, it takes a mile to come to a complete stop.
Motorists' signal to stop is simple, said Officer Greg Sowell. "When the red lights are activated, that means stop." Motorists learned that when they saw a different kind of flashing light, the kind that sits atop a patrol car. Tom Smith got a ticket. "A blinking red light to me, I thought, just stop, look both ways, no train, I went across. I'm supposed to wait for the train to come across? I'm not aware of that." Police stopped 18 drivers for crossing the tracks illegally in about a two hour period. The fine for the Class C misdemeanor will be at least $100.
McKinney just wants people to be aware. He knows what it's like to have someone pull in front of a train and not live to talk about it. "I've had some bad accidents. When asked if it stays with him, he answered quietly, "Yeah, it does." Then he hit the horn as another truck narrowly crossed in front of him.
Railroad Crossing Accidents
*Last year, there were 369 crossing fatalities across the country.
*The 26 deaths in Texas ranked us the third highest state for crossing deaths.
*In East Texas, Shelby County is listed among the top 25 counties for train/car collisions and fatalities.
*Since a federal train-automobile safety program first started back in 1972, these accidents have been reduced by 75 %.