MENDON – An old right-of-way under the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad could become the new road for traffic diverted from a dangerous crossing where an Amtrak train derailed after colliding with a truck in June 2022, killing four and injuring almost 150.
The double-tracked BNSF line crosses an old railroad corridor, first graded in 1870 and last used in 2007, via an overpass with an opening about 30 feet wide with 20 or more of overhead clearance.
The roadbed approach from an existing county road is firm, albeit with grass and other plants growing through the compacted rock base. Mike Mauzey, a farmer who lives near Mendon in northwest Chariton County and a volunteer firefighter, guided a reporter from The Independent to the location Friday.
While the new crossing is extra miles for traffic like emergency vehicles, he said, it has advantages.
“If a train is blocking the crossing, there is no other way out,” Mauzey said. “It is pretty hard to get a train to move.”
Rehabilitating the old Wabash railroad corridor is one of the recommendations for improving safety at 21 ungated crossings on the BNSF line that carries an average of 60 trains a day through Missouri.
Of that number, 11 would close, but seven of those would have new roads diverting traffic to safer crossings. Of the remaining 10, seven would be upgraded with lights and gates and three would have more signs placed along the approach.
The plans for the BNSF line and two other corridors that serve passenger trains were released last week at a news conference at the Missouri Department of Transportation headquarters in Jefferson City. Timed for the day after the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings for the Amtrak derailment investigation, the plans targeting 47 passive crossings — without warning lights and crossing gates — are the first proposals for using $50 million set aside by lawmakers at Gov. Mike Parson’s request in the wake of the Amtrak tragedy.
The department used existing money to prepare a study of each corridor so it was ready with a proposal when the money became available, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said.
The Mendon collision
For more than a year, two three-layered barricades of railroad ties and rails have blocked traffic at a dangerous railroad crossing where an Amtrak train derailed after colliding with a truck in June 2022, killing four and injuring almost 150.
Grass and weeds grow in Porche Prairie Road in front of and behind the barrier, almost obscuring the stop sign ignored by the truck driver attempting to get a load of rocks over the almost 11-degree incline approach to the double-tracked Burlington Northern Santa Fe corridor.
The investigative report really didn’t reveal anything not readily apparent at the accident scene, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at the news conference.
It was too steep and had poor visibility down the tracks, she said.
“In this situation, you know, just setting eyes on it, you realize how dangerous it was,” Homedy said.
The report did put some statistics to that realization. The approach was far steeper than recommended — 13 times steeper than standards set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials — and crossed at a 45-degree angle instead of the 90-degree angle recommended by the association.
The Southwest Chief approached the intersection at 89 miles per hour and the truck driven by Billy Barton of Brookfield, carrying a load of rock, crossed at 5 mph. The collision killed Barton and three passengers as the two locomotives and seven of eight passenger cars left the tracks.
“Sometimes there are tragic events that probably are a wake up call for all of us, but I think you can see now we’re serious about moving forward,” Parson said at last week’s news conference.
There are 1,400 crossings of all Missouri railroads with no active lights or gates, Parson said. He promised that he would continue to recommend spending to address the safety needs.
“It’s about moving forward,” he said. It’s about not letting it happen again, it’s about figuring out ways that we can do it better.”
Prior to the collision, Missouri used a fee on driver licenses to fund rail crossing improvements, McKenna said. The fee raised about $1.5 million annually and drew federal matching funds of about $4.5 million.
The total didn’t go very far when gates and crossing lights cost about $400,000 and building roads to reroute traffic can cost millions, he said.
“We did not make this the more broad issue that we should have,” McKenna said. “We accepted that there was 25 cents per license going into a fund that dropped $1.5 million into a fund and we tried to do as best we could with the resources that were available.”
As part of the investigation, Homendy said she met with county commissioners. The Perche Prairie Road is also called County Road 113 and the county maintains it.
“They had long wanted to address this crossing but when you are such a small area, you have needs that far exceed your resources and the state stepped up” by instituting a corridor study, she said. “So, you know, I think that responsibility is sort of shared here and I think we have to really recognize that.”
The crossing was not improved or closed in the past because no one made safety a priority for limited funds, McKenna said.
The blame includes MoDOT, he said.
“What happens is complacency built and it has and it did and the only thing I can say really is that our duty is to eliminate the complacency when we’re faced with such a tragedy,” McKenna said.
Over the past five years, there have been 27 collisions at crossings on the BNSF line throughout the state, including three that resulted in fatalities and five with injuries.
With 60 trains a day, that means any crossing has traffic an average of every 24 minutes. Everyone in Chariton County who used the crossing knew it was dangerous, Mauzey said.
“It was an accident waiting to happen,” he said.
In January, in tiny Gorin in Scotland County, a tractor-trailer hauling pipe became stuck on the tracks and an approaching BNSF freight train was unable to stop before striking it.
It was a gated crossing but the truck was too low and stalled because the rails lifted it off its wheels, the Memphis Democrat reported. The driver escaped but the semi-truck and trailer were driven 120 yards down the tracks.
“The safest grade crossing is no grade crossing,” Homendy said at the news conference.
The improvements to passive crossings on passenger lines is the top priority for Missouri’s program with a goal for closings and most other work completed by the end of 2024.
But those crossings are just the first part of the program. The next round of studies will look at the almost 1,400 passive crossings on freight-only lines and each of the passenger line reports include proposals for safety improvements at crossings that are already controlled.
The reports put the timeline for those upgrades as uncertain, based on negotiations between railroads, communities and available funding.
The federal government is making a big commitment to railroad safety, Amit Bose, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said at the news conference. The bipartisan infrastructure law is providing $32 billion in federal funding to supplement state commitments.
There are approximately 2,000 collisions, resulting in more than 200 deaths and injuries, at crossings on railroad grades every year, Bose said. The federal Transportation Department in June awarded $570 million for 63 projects affecting 400 crossings in 32 states, including up to $2 million for elimination of three crossings on Lydia Avenue near the Kansas City waterfront.
“We can build more grade separations, removing the possibility of collisions between trains and vehicles entirely,” Bose said. “We can build safer crossings and fund improvements that benefit motorists, riders and pedestrians alike, helping to protect our families and loved ones. with federal and state support.”
Not every crossing should get a gate and lights or be rebuilt to go over or under a rail line, McKenna said.
“That’s not always the final solution or the total solution,” he said. When there are multiple crossings close together it’s important to objectively consider consolidation for overall public safety.”
It is not just a public responsibility to make crossings safer, Homendy said. Railroads owe the public operations that are as safe as possible, she said, and can act quickly when necessary.
“It is not lost on me that within a matter of hours, the railroad repaired that section of track and got everything moving,” she said of the Mendon derailment. “So if you can make those improvements to get critical shipments of freight on your rail line, you can also make safety improvements in a quick amount of time.”
The timeline for making recommended changes along passenger lines will be dependent on how local governments and the communities that use the crossings react, McKenna said.
“There were 17 total closings recommended,” McKenna said. “I’m sure that we’ll meet with some opposition at the local level. We’re going to have to work through those things and find the right solution and the right mix of funding.”
Amtrak has three routes that serve Missouri:
- The Southwest Chief from Chicago enters the state in Clark County and exits at Kansas City on its way to Los Angeles. The report estimates the plan for passive crossings will cost $7.6 million and all safety improvements on the line will cost $63.3 million.
- The Missouri River Runner uses the east-west Union Pacific line from St. Louis to Kansas City. There are six passive public crossings, with two recommended for closure, one for upgrades and three for conversion to private crossings. The report estimates a cost of $91,000 for the passive crossing upgrades and $30.3 million overall.
- The Texas Eagle runs on Union Pacific tracks through southeast Missouri with 25 passive public crossings.The report estimates a cost of $10.8 million to put lights and gates at 20 crossings, flashing lights at one and to close four. All safety improvements recommended for the line would cost an estimated $35.5 million.
Local opposition will come from the people who use the crossings proposed for closure daily, Mauzey said.
“Nobody likes to go east when they want to go south,” he said.
The counter-proposals when MoDOT officials have the promised public meetings will likely be a request to remake the approaches to crossings with steep climbs to the railroad grade, he said.
“It won’t take much to make the grades more flat,” Mauzey said. “They would rather give dirt than close the crossing.”