Missouri details plan to improve safety at passenger-train grade crossings

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri plans to close 17 train crossings that currently intersect with passenger rail lines in the state.

The state examined all 47 crossings where roads intersect with passenger train lines at passive crossings after four people died in June 2022 when an Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train collided with a dump truck at a passive railroad crossing near Mendon, Missouri.

COMPLETE COVERAGE | Deadly Amtrak derailment near Mendon

State and federal officials announced plans Thursday in Jefferson City to upgrade 27 of those crossings with lights and gates and to permanently close 17 of those crossings.

“I’m sure that will meet with some opposition at the local level,” Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna said of the planned closures. “We’re going to have to work through those things and find the right solution.”

The three other crossings will receive “some other kind of treatment” from the $50 million allocation the Missouri legislature made from the state’s General Fund in the Fiscal Year 2023-24 budget under the current plan.

Recommendations at different crossings vary but may include advanced warning systems, realignment of the road to the tracks, improvements of the grade crossing, new roads and sidewalk enhancements.

“What Missouri’s done absolutely serves as a model for other states,” Amit Bose, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said.

McKenna stressed that the recommendations are not final and public input will be sought.

Missouri estimates that the changes at the 47 passenger-train crossings will cost $18.5 million.

Gov. Mike Parson said the money for fixing the railroad crossings is “a game changer for the state” and “the beginning of a path” to dramatically improve rail safety throughout Missouri.

“It’s unfortunate sometimes things happen, tragic events, that are probably a wake-up call for all of us,” Parson said. “But, I think you can see now we are serious.”

There are 1,422 passive crossings in Missouri.

McKenna said 95% of those intersections with state roads already have been upgraded, but most passive crossings intersect with local roads. The new plan aims to address those crossings with a goal of making the state’s transportation infrastructure safer.

“We have to do a better job on infrastructure every day,” Parson said. “I think this administration has made it a No. 1 priority.”

Missouri commissioned an independent report to make recommendations for passive rail crossings, which provided the framework for the new plan.

The state will work with cities, counties and the federal government where passive crossings exist to address and improve those intersections, which may include additional closures to consolidate crossings depending on the cost and alternatives.

“Nearly 50% of vehicle crashes occur at a crossing that has lights and gates,” McKenna said. “… That’s not always the final solution or the total solution.”

MoDOT also will make $3 million for “advanced signage” to help alert drivers of an upcoming crossing and is working with railroads on a grant program for additional improvements.

Missouri also “will be very aggressive” in partnering with federal grant programs to stretch the $50 million investment even further.

“No doubt, it’s been long overdue, and we can do it now,” Parson said. We can afford to do it … but this is the beginning of what we need to do.”

McKenna said infrastructure has been underfunded for 25 to 30 years in Missouri and nationally.

“We did not make this a more broad issue like we should have,” McKenna said.

Parson added, “We’ve got to step up our game to make things safer.”

Three passengers aboard the Southwest Chief died and the driver of the dump truck also was killed June 27, 2022, at the Porche Prairie Crossing in Chariton County. Nearly 150 other Amtrak passengers also were injured.

That crossing has remained closed since the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its final report on the crash Wednesday. It found that the dump truck driver failed to stop at a stop sign before attempting to cross.

While the report blamed driver error, the NTSB also said the grade crossing, which was 13 times more steep than recommended and angled three times more than the maximum standard recommendation, set the stage for tragedy.

“It was a poorly designed crossing,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said. “We saw that immediately on scene.”

She said she appreciated McKenna’s willingness to accept responsibility for the state’s role in the crash, but also singled out the railroads for culpability as well.

“There is also a responsibility by the railroad to ensure safety, especially when you have passengers being transported on your rail line,” Homendy said. “In this case, you have BNSF who owns the freight rail line, you have Amtrak who operates on it and you have a county-owned road.”

BNSF said it wasn’t responsible for the steep approach to the crossing at the site of the deadly train crash and derailment.

“As the NTSB report found, track-related condition within BNSF’s control were not a factor in the collision itself,” the railroad said in a statement to KSHB 41. “The safety improvements that the chairman raised are improvements to those non-rail-controlled areas of the crossing, including the approach. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the NTSB, the FRA, the state of Missouri and Chariton County to further reduce grade crossing collisions.”

The NTSB applauded Missouri’s decision to aggressively address rail safety in the wake of the Mendon crash.

“We didn’t issue safety recommendations because action was already taken,” Homendy said. “We rarely see that at the NTSB.”

The Porche Prairie Crossing has been on a list of crossings in need of an upgrade for several years, but MoDOT believes permanently closing it is a better solution.

“When you look at the details in the NTSB report and you look at the skew of the crossing and the height of it, there’s a significant amount of work to upgrade that beyond just lights and gates,” McKenna said. “It’s a higher cost for that improvement, so that’s the primary reason.”

The Southwest Chief operates on a BNSF rail line, while the other two passenger trains that travel through Missouri — the Missouri River Runner and the Texas Eagle — operate on Union Pacific lines.

“We look forward to working with the railroads and the communities who own these local roads to work through and finalize plans and agreements to make these safety improvements,” McKenna said in a statement.

Next, MoDOT plans to study its four freight-only railroad corridors to determine if safety improvements are needed at crossings along those lines.

“We’ve never had the financial resources to be able to do that in the past, and we’re thrilled to be able to do it,” McKenna said.

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