Collision as case study: Are stop signs enough at rural railroad crossings?

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A close call at a rural railroad crossing in St. Louis County might be considered a fascinating case study — unless your name is Gerald Wick.

"God must have been with me," said the 75-year-old Wick, of Toivola, whose lowboy trailer absorbed a collision with a BNSF train in the hour before dark on Dec. 11. "I was very fortunate."

Wick was outside Cotton and headed west on Arkola Road, or St. Louis County Road 52. He planned to catch his granddaughter's basketball game later that night. Wick had passed County Highway 7 and, before being struck by the train, cleared the Canadian National Railway tracks which are about three-quarters of a mile east of the BNSF crossing.

Unlike the gates and signals at the CN crossing, the BNSF intersection features only stop and railroad crossing signs. It has been twice refused federal funding in recent years for upgrades to gates and signals, in 2014 and 2017.

Wick and others before him have argued for traffic control upgrades to the crossing, but St. Louis County traffic engineer Victor Lund said there's really no such thing as a "gold-standard" treatment.

"If you come to a stop as required by state law," Lund said, "you can see both directions — completely unrestricted sight distances north and south."

Historical perspective

Minnesota roads include 4,069 at-grade public railroad crossings. And in St. Louis County, there are 127 crossings on county roads. About half locally (64) are signaled and gated — with the arms that drop and red lights that flash and are accompanied by bells.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is responsible for the crossings and doling out Federal Railroad Administration crossing safety funds, explained Lund. Historically, St. Louis County works with the MnDOT Rail Office to review crossings on county highways. Priorities are based on the level of train and vehicle traffic and other factors including prediction models, risk factors and available funds. It's pretty standard stuff.

"We have to look at this in a balanced approach," Lund said.

According to its failed funding bid in 2017, the Arkola Road-BNSF crossing was the third-highest funding priority in St. Louis County. It sees an average of 12 trains and 95 vehicles per day.

The crossing began to rise in priority with the county following a fatal crash in 2013.

In that incident, a 28-year-old man from nearby Kelsey Township drove into a stationary train in dense fog. The train was stopped due to mechanical problems. Following that crash, Lund recalled meeting at the site with local residents.

"I'll never forget it," Lund said. "A local farmer spoke up and said it's inconvenient to stop at the stop sign."

Wick said he couldn't stop and slid through the tracks. He can't recall if he heard the train whistle or not, he said, and was forced to react evasively when he saw the southbound engine bearing down.

"I wasn't going very fast," Wick said. "I saw the engine right there on my right side and thought, 'Oh God.' I think I accelerated and pulled to the left. I made it across, but the trailer didn't."

Lowboys are used to haul heavy equipment, and Wick's was empty. It detached upon impact, saving Wick and his semi-truck from being twisted and dragged. Wick said he wasn't cited for a traffic violation by responding St. Louis County Sheriff's Office deputies.

"I don't know the laws or rules," Wick said, regarding how railroad crossings are treated. "But if there were railroad lights there this would not have happened."

'Required to stop'

Following the Wick crash, authorities worked deep into the night to clear the scene.

"The locomotive sustained some damage in the incident," said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth, "but we were able to move it out of the area once it was inspected and the immediate response to the incident had concluded."

Because railroad crossing treatments regulate motor vehicle traffic, signage and signaling are defined as highway control devices. The railways are only partly involved in how a crossing is protected — providing design and cost input, said McBeth.

Federal funds typically pay about 90 percent of the cost of a railroad signal installation, while the local jurisdiction pays the other 10 percent of what amounts to a $300,000-$400,000 bill, Lund said. In each of the past two requests for signals and gates at the BNSF intersection on Arkola Road, Lund said the county has budgeted its 10 percent only to see the state choose other priorities.

Among the most effective things railroads do, McBeth said, is educate people about safe behaviors around railroad tracks. BNSF works with the nonprofit group, Operation Lifesaver, to improve public safety.

"BNSF has one of the lowest grade crossings collision rates in the rail industry," she said. "The rate of grade crossing collisions on BNSF has gone down by about 72 percent since 1995 through our education and engineering efforts."

Indeed, railroad crossing crashes are rare enough to almost always make the news when such collisions do occur. But the difference between using signs and signals is almost negligible, Lund said. Statewide data between 2004-13 shows that there are 0.003 injury/fatal crashes per year per gated-and-signalized railroad crossing. The rate bumps up slightly to 0.005 injury/fatal crashes per year on crossings regulated by signs alone.

"Signals and gates do not eliminate crashes," Lund said, citing drivers who swerve through the gates in an attempt to beat trains.

Lund said the county will continue to advocate for signals and gates at the BNSF crossing on Arkola Road. But he takes a less-than-sympathetic approach to those who say stopping is inconvenient when nine times out of 10 there's no train coming.

"Whether we like it or not there is a stop sign there," Lund said. "You're required to stop. There's a reason it's a stop sign and not a yield sign — because you can't see the train approaching unless you stop."