"Dangerous" Ignico railroad crossing in line for improvements

WARNER ROBINS -- Eighty-two-year-old Charlie English says he guards the Ignico Drive railroad crossing in Warner Robins three or four times a week.

“It’s a dangerous crossing,” said English, who worked as an agent/operator/leverman for Central Georgia Railroad and later Southern Railroad for 12 years. He went on to work for the Postal Service for 23 years before retiring in 1989.

Now English, of Macon, parks his green 1969 Chevrolet pickup truck near the tracks and waits. He listens to his radio scanner for the approaching train at the Ignico crossing, where the tracks run parallel to Ga. 247 across from Robins Air Force Base. When the crossing lights start to flash and the bells start to ding, English dons a safety vest and prepares to stop traffic.

When English is on watch, no one crosses the tracks until it’s safe.

“If I can save one life in all those years, it will be well worth it,” said English, who said he’s been guarding crossings since 1990.

The Ignico crossing is known for train-vehicle collisions, with five between 2005 and 2010.

As part of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, Georgia and other states were told to develop a plan to improve safety at railroad crossings. The Ignico crossing is among 10 on a prioritized list of crossings identified in Georgia’s proposed plan for improvement with the addition of a gate.

Kimberly Larson, a regional communications officer for the state Department of Transportation, said the Ignico crossing is expected to get a gate within the next 10 to 12 months.

According to the plan, gates have already been installed at six of the 10 crossings, at which collectively 19 crashes occurred between 2005 and 2010. “The installation of gates, though not certain to eliminate future crashes, has been effective as there have not been any crashes at any of the six crossings since gate installation,” the plan states.

History of collisions

On June 24, four men walked away after a Norfolk Southern train struck the Cadillac they were in -- knocking the car off the tracks “like a baseball striking a ball,” Houston County sheriff’s Sgt. Kenneth Beck said at the crash site that morning.

Witnesses told sheriff’s deputies working the crash that the driver pulled the car across the tracks when he looked up and realized the train was 30 to 40 yards away.

“He just looked at the train and froze,” Beck said.

Since 1975, railroads have reported to the Federal Railroad Administration 16 train-vehicle collisions at the Ignico crossing -- officially known as crossing No. 729216Y.

Twelve of the collisions resulted in no reported injuries, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics.

Houston County sheriff’s Cpl. Sean Alexander, a traffic investigator, said the statistics surprised him. He likened a train striking a vehicle to a tractor-trailer running over an aluminium Coke can in the road.

But Alexander added motorists should not have a false sense of security. The odds are on the train when it’s train versus vehicle, he said.

Of the four train-vehicle collisions at the Ignico crossing that resulted in injuries since 1975, all were in the last few years, Federal Railroad Administration records show. One collision resulted in a double fatality.

On Jan. 25, 2007, two young women were joking and laughing just minutes before their gold-colored 2003 Chevrolet Impala was struck by a Norfolk Southern train at the Ignico crossing. Their brief conversation was recorded on a cell phone message by the boyfriend of one of the women. The women were on their way to work at Perdue Farms.

“From the witness, they pulled up and accelerated into the track,” Houston County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Billy Rape said the day of the collision. “We don’t know if they didn’t see the train or if they tried to beat the train. So we’re really at odds about what happened.”

Education is key

In 2010, there were 2,004 train-vehicle collisions in the U.S. Georgia ranked ninth, with 67 collisions. Georgia reported seven of the 260 fatalities nationwide, ranking 12th. The state also reported 25 injuries, contributing to the nationwide total of 810.

Also, Georgia was among 10 states identified by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation with the most highway-rail grade crossing collisions in the three-year calender period from 2006 to 2008. The other states were Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas.

Marmie Edwards, vice president of communications for Operation Lifesaver, a railroad safety advocacy group, has found many motorists do not seem to be aware stopping on train tracks is never a good option. A vehicle can stall, a tire can go flat and in a matter of seconds, a train can be upon a vehicle, she said.

Also, looking down the track at a train often can create an “optical illusion” that the train is much farther away than it actually is, Edwards said.

Distracted driving also may be a factor in train-vehicle crashes, Alexander, of the Houston sheriff’s office, said. Vehicles are more sophisticated and made for comfort, including toning down outside noises. Add to that music cranked up, an air conditioner running, a baby in the backseat and cell phones, and a distracted driver might find himself or herself on a crossing in the path of a train, he said.

The fast-pace of today’s culture may also play a factor, Edwards said. People are often impatient and don’t want to wait a few minutes for a train, she said. Even at gated crossings, motorists have attempted to go around the gates and have been struck by an oncoming train, she said.

But when it gets to the bottom line, Edwards asked, isn’t waiting a few minutes for a train more important than losing a life?