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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 4, 2008

Unsafe railroad crossing should be closed

With illustration by Forest Byrd

We are for train travel and transport. If our government had put the money into railroads that it has into highways, Americans would be better off now. We’d be less dependent on foreign oil; we’d have a healthier environment; and suburban sprawl wouldn’t be a blight on our landscape.

It’s not too late to make some changes now. Last week’s collision in which two CSX freight trains hit a Land Rover whose driver had entered a difficult crossing without first stopping made us take a wider look at train accidents.

Earlier this decade, The New York Times wrote about the founding of Amtrak, which Congress created in 1970 to keep unprofitable passenger service running, and how Amtrak had to negotiate to use freight train tracks it didn’t own. A deal was struck so that Amtrak for more than three decades has paid liability claims in order to use the freight lines’ tracks.

So, if passengers who are injured because of a poorly-maintained track sue, it is Amtrak — and that means taxpayers — that foots the bill, not the freight lines. This leaves the freight lines with less incentive to keep the tracks safe and well-maintained. The problem would be solved if the government owned the tracks the way it does the highways. That way, tracks could be regularly inspected and well cared for.

We’re not so naïve that we believe such a transition will happen soon, but it’s worth pushing for. In the meantime, we can act locally to keep our citizens safe.

Peter Salerno made a big media splash last week. The Enterprise like other newspapers and television news stations ran pictures of his decimated Land Rover and quoted his view of events on Nov. 22. Salerno lives on the west side of Youmans Road; the only way out is across the train tracks. He was driving his Land Rover that morning with his two young daughters as passengers.

This is what Salerno told our reporter, Jo E. Prout: He looked three times at the crossing and saw only one slow train. Worrying that he would be trapped at home, he drove over the track. A second train, going much faster, hit the front of Salerno’s Land Rover. His door would not open and he could not start the vehicle because the engine was missing. He instinctively grabbed his daughters — one in the back seat, the other beside him — just before the second train hit and crumbled the places where they had been seated moments before.

It was a dramatic story and one worth telling. This week, we’re telling the rest of the unfolding story.

On Friday, Nov. 28, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department sent out a press release, saying Salerno had been arrested for failing to stop at a railroad crossing, a misdemeanor. A camera on one of the locomotives showed that Salerno’s Land Rover “entered the crossing and failed to stop and was struck by the train,” the release says. The sheriff’s department concluded, “The results of the investigation revealed there was no violation of any policies or procedures on the part of the CSX engineers.”

Certainly, individuals, like Salerno, are responsible for their own safety. He should have stopped. The court will decide his guilt or innocence. And it’s good to know CSX engineers followed procedures, blowing their horns as they approached the crossing.

But that doesn’t mean the crossing is safe. We wrote three years ago that it was an accident waiting to happen. It still is. This week, the Albany County sheriff himself told Prout that the Youmans Road crossing is “really unsafe.”

The road on the west side, where Salerno lives, is one narrow lane. It rises in about a 20-degree incline; then, on the other side of the track, there is a 20-degree decline. The car lane is bordered by a steeply-pitched ditch.

The crossing has no safety gate, no warning lights to indicate when a train is approaching. The only warning is when a train engineer pulls a whistle, and whistles can be hard to hear on windy days.

“You can’t see the trains coming until you’re right up on the tracks,” a Youmans Road landowner told us three years ago. You still can’t.

This Nov. 24, the Monday after the accident, we drove to the Youmans Road crossing. A large oil truck was part way up the incline ahead of us, waiting to cross the track to get to the west side. There was no way the driver could have seen down the track from that position. He waited a long time, no doubt straining to hear a train whistle — there was none — before crossing.

But there’s a solution and it’s one that was proposed nearly five years ago when housing developers hoped to put homes on Youmans Road — build a connector road between Great View Terrace, off of Swift Road, and Youmans Road.

In 2004, residents petitioned the town to have the alternate road to Great View Terrace constructed.  They pointed out another problem then — residents are trapped, sometimes for hours, when trains stop at the crossing.  If there were an emergency like a fire, ambulances and fire trucks couldn’t get through.

We commend New Scotland’s supervisor, Thomas Dolin, who took office last January, for pushing to build the connector road now. And we commend the town board for voting on Monday to authorize money for survey work for the new road.

The 1,700-foot connector road would cost about $400,000, Dolin estimates, to be paid for by the state only after a six-month process with public hearings. The town board will decide at its Dec. 10 meeting whether to request the crossing be closed, which triggers the state process.

We urge the board to proceed so the process can begin.

“I don’t see how [the crossing] could be improved to the point it could be safe,” Dolin told our reporter this week. “The trains are allowed to go 50 miles per hour.”

Whether Salerno is found guilty or not, the crossing is still dangerous. The connector road, which was mapped out years ago, is still the best solution. Let’s not wait until there’s a fatal accident to fix this.

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