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Deaths spur talk of closing railroad crossings

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

HOOVER — Train companies and government officials met Monday to discuss options for making Alabama's railroad crossings safer, including the politically sensitive idea of closing some little-used crossings.

The gathering, billed as the state's first summit on rail crossing safety, came just weeks after five people died in a pair of accidents in the Chilton County town of Thorsby.

Participants said the problem of cars and trucks pulling out in front of trains is statewide.

To help combat a problem as old as automobiles themselves, leaders discussed the possibility of closing some little-used cross-ings.

"We want to eliminate as many of those as possible," said Craig Camuso, a spokesman for CSX Corp. Such a move would divert traffic to crossings that already have lights and safety gates, which can cost about $200,000 to install.

But John Baker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern Corp., said shutting down any rail crossing can be difficult because even a few citizen complaints can kill the will of politicians who don't want to agitate voters.

"It's so hard to do without unanimous consent, and you never get unanimous consent," said Baker.

Tony Harris, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation, said a realistic goal might be to close about 5 percent of the state's 2,200 unprotected rail crossings within a decade.

That would only amount to 110 crossings statewide, but conference participants said any reduction in the number of cars going across rail tracks had the potential to save lives.

The summit also discussed options for stepped-up enforcement to ticket drivers who get too close to trains and publicity campaigns to supplement the work of Operation Lifesaver, which promotes rail safety.

Under state law, drivers are supposed to treat the X-shaped markers at rail crossings like yield signs, according to trooper Sgt. Tim Sartain. But drivers can be ticketed for going around protective gates or getting too near a train at an unprotected crossing, he said.

A CSX train hit a van at a crossing near the farming town of Thorsby on Feb. 8, killing four of the eight men inside. Just nine days later, a train hit a car that pulled on to tracks in Thorsby, killing a woman.

Those crashes were only the latest in a string of car and train accidents in Thorsby, but Mayor Tom Bentley said closing a rail crossing isn't as simple as just putting up barriers.

"We've got a couple crossings that could probably be closed ... but we've got to have some help moving that traffic. We've got to have some transportation funds," said Bentley, who attended the meeting.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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