According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a railroad crossing in Midland, Texas, where four veterans died after being hit by a train earlier this month, was meant to give passing drivers a 30 second warning before a train arrived, 10 seconds more than was actually given.
Investigators with the Texas Department of Transportation found that warning lights flashed and bells sounded only 20 seconds before a freight train crashed into a parade float carrying veterans and family members. A safety report released by federal safety inspectors found that the crossing gates started to close seven seconds after the lights began flashing, hitting the float as it was crossing the railroad tracks and then derailing.
Union Pacific owned the train in question and also designed the warning system that may have malfunctioned in this case. The locomotive company claims that the Texas Department of Transportation records that say the warning should have lasted for 30 seconds do not accurately reflect the current conditions at the crossing.
The attorneys for the railroad have said that the float continued driving onto the tracks eight seconds after the red lights and bells began flashing. An attorney representing one of the victims said that if the lights had started flashing 30 seconds before the train arrived at the intersection the crossing gates would have come down in time to prevent the float from getting onto the tracks.
Though federal law only requires that railroads give at least 20 seconds of warning at railroad crossings, most railroads build in extra time to account for traffic and other contingencies. An official with the state DOT said that crossing plans in the state normally provide for a minimum 25 seconds warning. Another contingency that such longer warnings are designed to guard from was the speed of the oncoming trains. Records from Texas indicate that when the signal warning system was constructed, planners anticipated that trains would be crossing at a speed of 25 miles per hours. The train that struck the float was moving at 62 miles per hour.
Our editors have highlighted numerous railroad crossing accidents or derailments where railroad accidents may have been less severe, and possibly avoided all together, had better safety systems been in place. Investigators are still hashing out what happened in this case, but it will be a tragedy if it turns out that this accident could have been avoided entirely had Union Pacific only followed their own safety procedures. As an attorney based in Virginia (VA) who has represented victims of railroad accidents for more than a quarter-century, it’s heartbreaking to see the physical and emotional toll rail employees, including engineers, conductors, transportation workers, and members of the public must pay when railroad companies, like Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern, or Amtrak, make safety anything other than their top priority.
About the Editors: Our personal injury law firm has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC). The attorneys with the firm publish and edit articles on three Legal Examiner sites for the geographic areas of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Northeast North Carolina as a pro bono service to the general public.