DALLAS (AP) — Deaths at railroad crossings in Texas have doubled in the last year, renewing questions about whether the thousands of miles of track in the state is being safely maintained and monitored, figures compiled by The Associated Press show.
The spike in fatalities comes after a four-year period in which Texas had lowered its death toll significantly and with the state in the midst of implementing a federally mandated plan aimed at improving rail-crossing safety.
They include not only the Nov. 15 accident in Midland that claimed the lives of four military veterans on a parade float, but an equally horrific accident that killed three generations of one family in the East Texas town of Diboll last March.
Critics of the railroads believe they deserve much of the blame for increasing the speed of trains without adjusting the timing of crossing gates, while state authorities contend that motorists are ultimately responsible for their own safety.
"In 2012, we can do all kinds of exploration in space, and yet, with all that technology, people are still getting killed at railroad crossings," said Sally Tingle, executive director for the Texas chapter of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating railroad crossing accidents.
The AP found 32 people died this year at railroad crossings in Texas, based on federal data, news accounts and statements from the Texas Department of Transportation. For the previous four years, the state had averaged just 20 deaths a year. That followed two years in which the death toll reached 34 and 44.
The 2012 Texas death toll contrasts with the national statistics, which show railroad crossing deaths have generally decreased in the last five years and could be headed for a further drop-off this year. Data compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration through the end of August shows 168 deaths nationally, 10 less than what was reported for the same period in last year.
Experts said the spike in deaths in Texas merits evaluation, but they cautioned that it may simply be a statistical anomaly. The best measure is what the numbers show over several years, they said.
"Every accident is important, particularly to the family and community that experienced it," said Bob Chipkevich, former director of the National Transportation Safety Board's railroad accident investigation division. "But when you look for trends, you have to look at the longer term."
Texas, with nearly 11,000 miles of track, was one of 10 states required to develop a railroad crossing safety action as a result of a federal law enacted in 2008. The states were selected on the basis of the number of incidents at crossings reported for the previous three years.
The Texas plan, developed by the state's Department of Transportation, lists dozens of strategies, including evaluating crossings with multiple accidents and developing outreach programs to better educate the public and law enforcement.
In an email, TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said the plan, which won't be fully implemented until 2014, has already led to crossing upgrades and improved education. However, she noted that motorists "hold the key" to safety.
"We will continue to work with federal partners and railroad companies to ensure safety devices are working at railroad crossings, but, similar to roadway safety, we need the help from Texas drivers to enhance safety at these crossings as well," Beyer wrote.
Bob Pottroff, a Manhattan, Kan., attorney whose practice focuses on railroad crossing accident cases, said it's misguided to put the onus on motorists. The real issue is how the railroads are increasing the speeds of their trains without adjusting mechanical devices at crossings to provide longer intervals between initial warnings and the trains' arrival, he said.
Pottroff, who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two veterans injured in the Midland accident, said the problem is particularly acute in Texas, a key corridor for moving freight to and from the West Coast.
"They are flying trains through Texas faster than they ever have," he said.
The four veterans killed in Midland were part of a parade honoring wounded vets when the flatbed truck carrying them collided with a Union Pacific train traveling 62 mph. The driver of the truck ventured onto the track after the warning signals had begun to flash and before the arms had descended, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB said the device was activated within 20 seconds of the train's arrival, the minimum standard required by federal regulations. However, TxDOT documents made public last week indicate that the device was designed to activate at 30 seconds.
Darin Kosmak, director of TxDOT's rail-highway section, wrote in an email that trains are traveling along the rail line at a maximum speed of 70 mph even though the crossing's design was based on speeds of no more than 25 mph.
The Diboll collision also involved a Union Pacific train and a crossing set for a 20-second warning time.
The train slammed into a Jeep Wrangler that had stopped on the track soon after the arms descended, causing the deaths of the 19-year-old driver, her 54-year-old grandmother and her 18-month-old nephew.
The conductor told police he thought it was a suicide because the vehicle never moved even though it was on the track for 10 seconds. But Jerry Easley, a lawyer who represented the family in a lawsuit against Union Pacific that was settled out of court, said evidence suggests the vehicle stalled and that the two women struggled to remove the toddler from a car seat.
Easley said video showed the vehicle entered the crossing 26 seconds before impact, but that wasn't enough time to escape the approaching train, which was traveling about 50 mph. The train's operators sounded the horn and backed off the throttle but didn't use the emergency brake until only a few seconds before the crash, he said.
Had the brake been set earlier, the women might have been able to save themselves and the child, Easley said.
"It certainly would have bought them more time, but the railroad can say, `We don't put on the emergency brake because that might cause a derailment,"' he said.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza-Williams said the engineer complied with federal regulations by sounding the horn 21 seconds before the train reached the crossing.
"It is important to remember that trains cannot stop quickly," she wrote in an email to the AP, adding that a train going 55 mph can travel more than a mile before coming to a complete stop.