News: Deadly Crossings

Activists want railroads to pay for safety

Mar 23, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Matt Borgerding

A white cross marks the site of Christina Male's death, soon to be part of a documentary.

When Christy Male of Cincinnati crossed a set of railroad tracks in Walton, Ky., July 10, 2001, a Norfolk Southern train struck her car at a speed of 45 miles per hour.

Paramedics airlifted Male from the scene, but she died a short time later. The McAuley High School and Xavier University graduate was just shy of her 26th birthday.

An accident occurs at a train crossing in the United States, on average, every 90 minutes. The crash that killed Male was one of 3,273 crossing accidents that year.

Male's story is one of several featured in the short film Crossings, an independent documentary produced by Male's lifelong friends Emily Jensen and Cynthia Childs. The two took on the project and formed Bittersweet Productions to showcase the dangers of railroad crossings and to pay tribute to Male's life.

A 15-minute trailer for the film will be shown April 1 during a fund-raiser designed to promote awareness and raise additional money to complete the project.

"I would characterize it as a personal and a human story," Jensen says. "We're trying to raise people's awareness about rail safety.

But what we've realized as we've researched the problem is that it's an important safety issue that needs to be addressed. It's kind of trite, but it's a David and Goliath story and there are people who are putting themselves and their personal pain out there for other people to see so they can prevent these things from happening again."

'Really dangerous place'
Because single accidents in rural communities rarely garner media attention, Jensen says people tend to overlook crossings as hazards. Many times the general public lays blame on the driver, she says.

"When you tell people how she died, they assume she was driving around the gates, they assume she was maybe drinking or they assume she did something really stupid, because everyone thinks, 'How could you not see a train?' " Jensen says. "What we want to show people is that none of those things were true. It was 7 p.m. She worked for the American Cancer Society, and she was going to visit one of her volunteers. This was just a really, really dangerous place. Anyone who lives on that street will tell you that."

Numerous close calls at the crossing where Male was killed prompted Walton resident Tina Greenlee to write both the railroad and her congressman. On the evening of the accident she was one of the last people to see Male alive; Greenlee was the volunteer Male was going to visit, just past the tracks.

Following Male's death, Greenlee says the city of Walton cut vegetation away from the track, hung additional signs and painted a large white "RR" before the crossing.

"I spoke to the mayor and he said he just wanted to prevent it as best he could on his end so it wouldn't be repeated," Greenlee says. "Coming into the neighborhood, it's maintained very well. But going south, you can't really see because there's a bend in the hill. They'd have to cut out a whole lot of dirt for that to ever get better."

Only a crossbuck street sign marked the crossing on Locust Street where Male died. Only 20 percent of the 160,000 crossings in the United States have warning lights and gates. Responsibility for maintaining crossings often becomes a contentious subject, but the bottom line rests on property lines, according to Rudy Husband, spokesman for Norfolk Southern.

"Warning devices are maintained through the railroad and the vegetation around the crossing," he says. "It really depends on who owns the property. For us, there's no dispute. If we own the property, then we maintain the property and cut the vegetation. In fact, we've undergone an enormous program of cutting vegetation in and around crossings that's on our property."

'Easy to blame'
Although railroads maintain gates and lights, they don't determine where and when they get installed. That responsibility goes to state and federal agencies, which identify hazardous crossings by using a formula based on vehicle traffic, number of trains, the speed of the trains and accidents and fatalities.

"Typically what happens after there's been a death, the state will come in and do another diagnostic survey and they'll say, 'We're going to put gates in here,' and that's too little too late," says Vickie Moore, co-founder of the Angels on Track Foundation. "It's almost if they're reactive instead of proactive. They do everything they're supposed to after somebody dies. But why didn't they do something (to prevent) these accidents beforehand?"

Moore and her husband Dennis started the organization in 1997 after their son died at an Ohio railroad crossing. Afterward the state installed gates and lights at the crossing, where seven other people had also been killed.

Nothing prevents railroads from installing their own safety equipment at dangerous crossings, but they prefer to wait until it's mandated, Moore says.

"They choose to sidestep their responsibility because it's too easy to blame the driver," she says. "Part of the reason they don't want gates and lights installed is because the maintenance costs are fairly high. But also, if it can be proven if the gates and lights are malfunctioning, it falls back on them, so that increases their liability for accidents and deaths. They're not going to be proactive making any changes to public safety because they don't consider it their responsibility."

Ultimately Moore would like to see gates and lights installed at all crossings — but until people demand change, she fears, nothing will be done. When accidents occur at crossings, usually no survivors are left to tell what happened, she says.

"That's why you have people like Emily and Cynthia and the Males, my husband and I and other families," she says. "It's the families that are left the truth, and we're not going away. The railroads aren't going to do anything. The Federal Railroad Administration hasn't done anything. The public doesn't care about it until it happens to them, but then it's too late."

A fund-raiser to support the production of Crossings is 8-11 p.m. April 1 at Clovernook Country Club, 2035 W. Galbraith road, North College Hill. For more information, call 617-413-9239.