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Special Report: Risk On The Rails - KOAM TV 7

Special Report: Risk On The Rails

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When it comes to a train versus a car, or a person, it's no contest.  In the past year - at least four people have died in our area alone from train accidents.

But, in these situations, who, or what, is to blame?  We rode along with a crew from the Missouri and Northern Arkansas Railroad in Joplin.  What we saw at some of the crossings, was alarming.

Part 1:

We decided to see firsthand just what makes rail crossings so dangerous - whether it's poorly marked crossings - or distracted driving.

Rick Oeltjen, General Manager, Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad: "The signage has helped, it hasn't prevented it 100% but it certainly has slowed that traffic down. It's very difficult for an engineer or a train crew to determine what vehicles are actually going to stop and which ones aren't."

Unfortunately - these cars - didn't stop.  The engineer lays on the horn - as three cars - including a Carl Junction Police car, don't even yield for the flashing red lights.

Oeltjen: "Crossings that are protected by automatic warning devices have the same meaning as a vehicular flashing red light."

Oeltjen says the most common misconception is a train's stopping distance is based on the speed it's traveling.

He says it's the weight of the train, not the speed, that determines stopping distance.

Oeltjen: "That can be as short as a few hundred feet or it can be as long as more than a mile."

Oeltjen says that's what makes crossings dangerous, regardless of how they're marked.

Oeltjen: "It's very difficult for any human to determine the speed of an approaching train, that's what gets folks in a lot of trouble."

It didn't take long before we crossed Florida Avenue - another nine cars crossed directly in front of the train.

Oeltjen: "It's a situation that our crews encounter far too often."

Oeltjen says it's difficult for crews to tell why drivers don't stop, however, officials with MoDOT say distracted driving is the leading cause of accidents at rail crossings across the state.

The driver of this car barely stopped in time - and when we passed, the driver was texting.

A little later near the Joplin Webb City Industrial Park.. A semi truck passing directly in our path again.

Oeltjen: "We do work in a very unforgiving industry, you don't get a second chance a lot of times."

We reached out to the Carl Junction Police Department and Chief Delmar Haase tells us he believes it may have been a civilian driving the vehicle taking it for service.  Unfortunately for some in the four-state area, they didn't get that second chance.

Part 2:

The dangers of being distracted while driving are all too evident in vehicle versus vehicle crashes in town - where a distracted driver runs a red light, or doesn't see a pedestrian.  But those same distractions, can be more dangerous when it comes to the rails.

In March - two people in a car pulled up to this crossing just south of Asbury.  The vehicle crossed the tracks in front of a train - and was struck on the passenger side.  Crews from the Carl Junction Fire Protection District responded to that accident.  Joe Perkins, Carl Junction Fire Chief: "We knew really early in our response that both patients were going to be high priority patients."

The driver died from his injuries.

Perkins: "That road comes at an angle, you're coming onto, you have a very short stop once you get over the tracks."

Carl Junction Fire Chief Joe Perkins - says he isn't surprised the crash occurred.

Perkins: "To me, that's a tough spot, and i don't know...what's funny about that particular spot is you would think that there would be more responses to that particular spot."

Perkins says the crossings close proximity to the highway makes it exceptionally dangerous.

Just down the road - a train hit another car, but in this case, there were only minor injuries.  Both crossings are marked with a crossing marker, called "crossbucks", some also have a yield sign, some have do not.  But a new Federal regulation is about to change that.  By December 31st of 2019 all "crossbuck" style crossings either a yield or stop sign must be installed and be visible to drivers.  And even though there are dangerous crossings, Perkins believes preventing accidents comes back to the driver.

Perkins: "Preventable? Yea, I mean there are a lot of them that are preventable, I think we see very few that are true true accidents, because, with the nature of the train, it's on a track, it's not like it's weaving around passing traffic on the left."

The Missouri Department of Transportation is conducting a statewide survey of rail crossings to determine which ones might need safety updates.

In Joplin - the Missouri and Northern Arkansas Railroad is working to close certain crossings in town that aren't high traffic - and make safety improvements at the crossings that remain open.

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Extra:

For the safety of the community and our operation, The Kansas City Southern Railway Company complies with all U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations.  More information about railroad crossing safety and trespass prevention, can be found on the FRA website at https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0841

In every state, the state Department of Transportation is ultimately responsible for determining the warning level at highway rail grade crossings.  Motorists and pedestrians are reminded that when they See Tracks Think Train.

Please find tips for motorists here: https://oli.org/education-resources/driving-safety-tips

Please find tips for pedestrians here: https://oli.org/education-resources/pedestrian-safety

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Chris Warner
Reporter

A Joplin native, Chris first started in broadcasting at age 16 at KSNF-TV in 2004..

Chris joined the KOAM team in 2017 as an Associate Producer. In April, he moved into a full-time reporter position. He spent time from 2008 to 2016 in various retail roles around the region before returning to his passion at KOAM. Chris is excited to continue telling the stories of the four states. Chris and his wife Amber live in Joplin and have three amazing children.

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Contact Chris:
417.624.0233 or 620.231.0400
cwarner@koamtv.com

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