The Grade-Crossing Accident in Biloxi

One of the first safety
issues faced by the early railroad engineers (meaning the designers, as well as
the guys who drove the trains) was how to handle grade crossings:  the place where a railroad line
intersects a surface road.  The
only foolproof way to handle such an intersection is to build a bridge so the
foot or wheel traffic never obstructs the rail line.  Bridges are expensive, though, so in the twentieth century in
the U. S. most grade crossings were simply equipped with warning signs and
signals, and the railroads and local road authorities hoped for the best.  As the accident on Mar. 7 in Biloxi,
Mississippi proved, the best is sometimes pretty bad.

Biloxi and the surrounding
area is a magnet for retirees who like to spice up their lives with games of
chance, and so tour buses transporting seniors from as far away as Texas and
other states are a common sight in town. 
A CSX railroad line runs east-west through town, at a level of a few
feet above the surrounding flat coastal land, and crosses Main Street at a
grade crossing.  When the crossing
was built, probably in the early 1900s, the longest wheeled vehicle likely to
cross it was no more than about twenty feet long, and the slight rise of the
rail-line level from the street on either side of the tracks presented no
problem.  But with the development of
trailers and buses later in the century that were fifty feet long or more,
these raised grade crossings presented a hazard, because vehicles with a long
wheelbase can scrape the rails and lose traction, getting stuck on the
tracks.  And at the intersection in
question, there have been numerous accidents caused by just such a problem
since the 1970s, both fatal and non-fatal.

On Tuesday, March 7, the
driver of a tour bus transporting vacationers from the Bastrop, Texas Senior
Center was apparently deviating from his bus company’s prescribed route when he
approached the CSX crossing on Main Street.  And just as many other drivers of long vehicles discovered,
his bus wasn’t going to make it. 
According to reports, the bus was stuck for about five minutes before a
three-locomotive freight train hit it, carrying the bus about 200 feet down the
tracks.  Although riders had begun
to flee the bus before the collision, many were still trapped inside when the
train struck.  Four people were
killed, including a couple from Lockhart, not far from where I live.  Thirty-five people were injured, several

Most people know that
trains can’t stop on a dime, or even a quarter-mile row of dollar bills.  The laws of physics make it almost
impossible to safely dissipate the huge amount of energy represented by a loaded
train moving, say, 25 miles per hour (as the CSX freight was before the
engineer saw the bus stuck on the tracks) without taking many seconds and
hundreds of feet to do it in.  So
realistically, it’s up to drivers to stay out of the way of trains on
grade-crossing tracks.

Railroad companies have
tried all kinds of things to prevent people from getting stuck on tracks:  bells, gates, signs warning that long
vehicles can get stuck (there were such signs posted at the Main Street
crossing), even heavy-handed color movies displaying in grim detail the
consequences of taking chances with trains.  (I watched one of those movies on a rainy day in elementary
school when the teacher was desperate to keep us distracted during recess, and
it gave me nightmares.)  But if
drivers ignore warning signs and, once a bus is stuck, fail to evacuate it
promptly, the inevitable is going to happen sooner or later, as it did last
week in Biloxi.

As an article in the Austin American-Statesman pointed out,
not even the new and costly Positive Train Control (PTC) system now being
installed by railroads across the U. S. would have prevented this
accident.  PTC is a semi-automated
system that will prevent head-on train-train collisions and will regulate
speeds if the human operator gets careless.  This will make passenger trains safer and reduce the number
of freight-train accidents.  But
even PTC can’t keep people from getting stuck on the tracks at grade

The overall incidence of
fatal accidents involving U. S. railroads has decreased since the 1990s, but
until grade crossings with humps such as the one in Biloxi are eliminated,
there is always the chance of a careless truck or bus driver coming along and
getting stuck on the tracks.  Towns
that can afford the space and expense are replacing grade crossings with overpasses
that both improve traffic flow and eliminate the safety hazard, but as the
American Society of Civil Engineers has been fond of pointing out for decades,
America is way behind in infrastructure improvements such as these. 

Right here in San Marcos,
we have two frequently-used rail lines that used to cut the town in two at the
three major intersections of east-west roadways and railroad lines.  And on rare occasions, a long train or
trains would simply stop at these crossings, making it difficult or impossible
for emergency vehicles to get from the west side of town to the hospital on the
east side.  About eight years ago,
the city built an overpass at the grade crossing nearest the hospital, and
currently another bridge is being built over the second of the three major
crossings.  But this will still
leave an old-fashioned humped grade crossing near the middle of town, which
fortunately is not situated on a major traffic artery.  Still, there is always a chance that a
wayward truck or bus will get stuck there, although such an incident hasn’t
happened in the seventeen years we’ve lived here.

Perhaps this whole issue
of grade-crossing hazards will fade into the past as autonomous passsenger
vehicles come into general use. 
One hopes that the programmers of those vehicles will build in a fail-safe
way to keep them away from railroad tracks where the vehicle is likely to get
stuck, and to obey crossing warnings. 
But unless the passenger is completely unable to influence the car’s
motion in any way, there will still be people who will override the safety
features and try to cross against warning signs and signals—and they will be
taking a chance they shouldn’t try to take.

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