For most rural Minnesota crossings, just an 'X' marks the spot
SABIN, Minn. – The railroad crossing where a 91-year-old died here Sunday was unguarded, with just a sign marking its presence and no arm gates or lights.
In other words, it was like most railroad crossings in the state.
About two-thirds of public railroad crossings in Minnesota don’t have advanced signals for motorists and pedestrians such as crossing gates, lights and bells, according to a 2013 Minnesota Department of Transportation report.
Advanced signals are more likely to be found in high-traffic areas than along rural highways like Clay County Road 67 in Sabin. Of the 39 crossings listed within Moorhead, 25 are equipped with active signals, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. In contrast, all but one of Sabin’s nine crossings are marked only with signs.
That is slowly changing. Minnesota will receive nearly $6 million in funds in 2014 to improve railway-highway crossings throughout the state as part of a $220 million federal push to eliminate hazardous crossings and install more protective devices.
Federal funds cover 90 percent of the cost to upgrade crossings while counties, cities and townships make up the rest. It can run anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 to upgrade crossing signals, said David Overbo, Clay County engineer.
Few, if any, crossings in Clay County may warrant improvement, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation criteria.
All crossings in Minnesota are equipped with a “crossbuck” – the white X that reads “railroad crossing,” Overbo said. Crossings may also have signs farther from the site or pavement markings, he said.
MnDOT has guidelines for flashing lights or crossing arms, Overbo said. For instance, the guidelines require the average daily vehicle traffic multiplied by the number of trains to exceed 5,000 for flashing lights, Overbo said. If that formula is not met, accident history, sight lines and speed limit may be considered, he said.
Overbo said he could not identify any crossings in Clay County that met the criteria and did not have advanced signals installed.
“Clay County pretty much has all of them where they are warranted,” he said.
Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist couldn’t identify any particularly troublesome train crossings within the county, either. He also couldn’t recall any accidents at the County Road 67 crossing involved in the fatal crash Sunday.
William Briden died at the scene when a train struck the vehicle his wife, Gloria Briden, was driving just yards from their home.
There were two other accidents reported at that crossing in the 1970s, according to FRA data.
If something were to change in an area, such as a huge development or an increased number of accidents at a particular crossing, “we’d be seriously putting up some gates in a hurry,” Overbo said.
Whether crossings are equipped with active signals or not, Sheryl Cummings, executive director of Minnesota Operation Lifesaver, said educating the public about train safety is important.
Her group – part of the national Operation Lifesaver Inc. – visits with driver’s education classes, truck drivers and other groups to share their “Look, Listen and Live” motto as they interact with trains.
“Trains are big and heavy and in every situation have the right of way,” said Cummings, who grew up in Moorhead.
She emphasized safety at all types of railroad crossings, even those with crossing arms. Nationwide, half of all accidents occur at crossings with some type of active warning signal, she said.
Bergquist shared her sentiment.
“No matter where the crossing is at, even if there are arms, I tell people to still look,” Bergquist said. “What happens if those arms don’t work?”
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