Investigation: Public safety for some Treasure Coast rail crossings in hands of unaccountable
Posted on August 1, 2016
By Lucas Daprile of TCPalm
By the time Charn Kuon saw the train coming, it was too late.
Having recently moved to Port St. Lucie from South Carolina, he was taking his wife and visiting mother-in-law to see the Lao Buddhist temple in Indiantown. He stopped their Honda SUV at the Amaryllis Avenue railroad crossing in Martin County. He couldn't see around a Brazilian pepper tree, but he didn't hear a train, so he proceeded to cross the tracks.
An Amtrak passenger train barrelled toward them at 79 mph. Charn floored it, but didn't get out of the way in time. The southbound train clipped the back of their car, throwing his mother-in-law out the window from the back seat.
Khunly Khun, 70, died at the scene. Charn and his wife, Rattana Khun, were hospitalized in serious condition, but survived.
"It never goes away," Rattana said of the 2010 crash. "The person that happened to ... they have to deal with that every day. ... You know, sometimes on special occasions, you think about it. I mean, it's painful."
Theirs was the third and latest crash, and the only fatal one, at that crossing since 1980. Yet today, there's only the same stop sign and crossbucks — a white and black X-shaped sign that reads "railroad crossing" — to warn drivers of the nine trains that pass through each day. The two crossings north of it and the seven crossings south of it have the standard gates and lights.
Rattana said, with a touch of a Cambodian accent, it "would be nice if they all had (it) gated with the light on."
The Amaryllis Avenue crossing is among 25 in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties that are exempt from nearly all government regulation and oversight because they are on private property, even though some have public access, a Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found.
Rail companies, which own the tracks and 50 feet on both sides, typically hold whoever they grant a crossing easement to responsible for requesting and funding warning devices, leaves public safety in the hands of the unaccountable.
For decades, the federal government has known private crossings present a danger and has considered taking action, but pressure from the rail industry and jurisdictional disputes have kept regulations at bay.
HOW BAD IS IT?
There have been at least seven crashes, two of them fatal, at private crossings on the Treasure Coast since 1980 — that's 4 percent of the total.
Private roads open to public access typically must obey federal traffic regulations, but private railroad crossings specifically are exempt. So conditions and warning devices vary widely. While six of the eight private crossings with public access had gates and lights, one in Indiantown was malfunctioning when Treasure Coast Newspapers was there at 4:45 p.m. May 18. Warning devices at four of the 17 others were falling apart or hidden behind vegetation. The signs at a Glades Cutoff Road crossing in St. Lucie County were riddled with apparent bullet holes.
Amaryllis Avenue is an outlier on the Treasure Coast, but nationwide, it's common for private crossings to have fewer warning devices than public crossings. The Federal Railroad Administration said that's most likely why the number of crashes at them aren't declining as much as they are at the increasingly regulated public crossings. Between 1985 and 2006, crashes at all crossings decreased about 56 percent; private crossings made up only 3.7 percent of that, according to an FRA study.
One of the few federal regulations requires gates and flashing lights — or a gate prohibiting public access — but only if trains reach 80 mph. Amtrak trains passing over Amaryllis Avenue often reach, but don't exceed, 79 mph. AAF trains won't exceed that in some locations.
Statewide, one in four crossings is private, according to federal data. Florida's only requirement other than crossbucks is that signs conform to standard design.
It's hard to say which private crossings need more or better warning devices. The FRA database doesn't always list daily traffic estimates, and even then they're from 1988 or earlier. The region's population has grown 93 percent since then, according to census data. And All Aboard Florida will bring 32 faster and quieter trains through the area, increasing the chances of crashes.
IN THE DARK
The federal government acknowledged the danger of private crossings when it convened a public safety meeting with industry officials in 1993, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Transportation report. Yet the government still knows few, if any, details about a given crossing.
Only since March 2015 have railroads been required to report locations, ownership and the number/speed of trains at private crossings. They still don't have to report warning devices, average daily traffic or whether school buses cross them. The FRA database is not up to date and still contains inaccuracies. For example, the GPS coordinates listed for 17 of Florida's private crossings place them in the Gulf of Mexico. Those listed for a St. Lucie County crossing are actually for a Hialeah train station, two hours away. The database doesn't even list at least one St. Lucie County crossing.
All of the Treasure Coast's publicly accessible private crossings were in compliance, however, with a 2015 requirement that all crossings have signs with a phone number to report an emergency or danger on the tracks.
These few regulations came well after the federal government started working on the problem, according to correspondence between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board. In 1998, the latter formally recommended the former, within two years, determine who was responsible for private crossings and require their warning devices meet federal standards. But the government folded to railroads concerned about cost, and states concerned about the limits of their jurisdiction, our investigation found. In 2014, NTSB officially gave up on its recommendation, leaving the responsibility for safety at private crossings still undefined.
CSX agreements with easement holders make them responsible for requesting and funding warning devices, spokeswoman Kristin Seay said. FEC did not respond to questions about its policy, but a 1999 agreement shows the company has operated similarly.
Who's responsible for the Amaryllis Avenue crossing, for example, is anyone's guess because CSX would not provide the agreement, there could be multiple easement holders and the property appraiser's website does not show who owns the road.
"Most people ... would never be able to point at a crossing and tell me off the bat if it's private or public," said CSX safety officer Katie Kisner. "It's all determined by the road authority and the road ownership."
The "safety concern is next to nothing," said Amaryllis Avenue resident Tom Ross. He said he prefers to see trains slow down, since "a lot of people probably don't have money" to afford a full set of lights and gates.
While online stores sell crossbucks for less than $175, a full set of automated lights and gates can cost up to $300,000, Seay said.
The federal government in the last two years has allocated one-time grants for public and private crossings totaling $35 million. But private crossings aren't eligible for the recurring "Section 130" federal funds, which totaled $350 million in 2016. These are awarded to states, which allocate them to crossings based on need. In the last five years, crossings within eight miles of Amaryllis Avenue have received $394,902, according to state records.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in 2010 recommended Congress amend laws to make private crossings with public access eligible for Section 130 funds. Congress has not acted.
"This might be one of the most dangerous intersections around," Ross said of the Amaryllis Avenue crossing. "I don't know how it could be any less (regulated) ... except for not having a stop sign at all."