By Katy Millberg
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
The North Carolina Department of Transportation Railroad Division seeks to eventually eliminate all train accidents in the state and works under a zero tolerance policy. While the number of train accidents in the state has decreased dramatically in recent years, there is still much work to be done.
The total number of accidents in North Carolina has gone down from 31 in 2006 to 23 in 2009. Within the last year alone, the number of accidents has fallen almost 15 percent. North Carolina’s ranking in number of total accidents has fallen from 12th to 31st in the nation, according to the NCDOT Web site.
While any progress is good progress in the railroad safety arena, 23 accidents is far too many for the NCDOT.
The department is working to find new ways to make area tracks, trains and crossings safer. One problem the department faces is drivers’ habit of neglecting to heed warning signs at railroad crossings by parking on train tracks. Safety Engineering Manager Drew Thomas commented to NBC17’s Lauren Hills, “I would love to know of a way to make people quit doing that. I don’t know of one.”
Director of Engineering and Safety Paul Worley said, “Despite what traffic control devices we put up, it is ultimately the driver’s responsibility to obey the signals, and that’s just what it comes down to.”
The state of North Carolina has 4,031 public crossings, and each one is equipped with some sort of warning signal, according to information provided by the NCDOT. There are 1,733 with gates, 602 with other activated signals and 1,696 with passive warning signals.
The type of warning equipment needed at a crossing is determined by several factors including the number of cars and buses that use the crossing daily and the crossing’s 10 year accident history, according to the NCDOT Web site.
But, it seems nearly impossible to protect all motorists from trains. Durham is still mourning the loss of Hassan Bingham, 6, and Calvin Brandon, 9, who were killed in a December train accident. Many want to know what is being done to protect drivers at the intersection where this accident took place.
In 2004, the NCDOT worked with Norfolk Southern Corporation to update the gates at the Ellis Road and Angier Avenue crossing, the scene of the December crash. The groups installed four quadrant gates where only two gates stood before. The new four quadrant gates block all lanes of travel across railroad tracks while warning signals are activated and are intended to keep drivers from going around a single gate onto the tracks. The installation of this type of gate at numerous crossings in the state led to an 86 percent decrease in violations at those crossings, according to NCDOT tests.
While four quadrant gates are typically a hugely successful response to a potentially hazardous crossing, the NCDOT is considering taking precautions a step further at the Durham crossing if it receives adequate funding. “That includes the construction of a grade separation and a bridge over or under the railroad that would replace the crossing, but we don’t know if we’re going to get that money,” Thomas said to NBC17.