MnDOT chief reports 'multiple' near-misses at railroad crossings

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Just mid-way through the year, there have been 25 highway-rail grade collisions in Minnesota, and the state's transportation chief says he has learned from railroad officials of multiple other "near misses" involving people who ignored railroad crossing warnings.

"The risk-takers avoided a collision with a train by mere seconds. Too often, this dangerous behavior leads to tragic results," Charlie Zelle, the commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said in an opinion piece published Monday in the Rochester Post Bulletin about train safety.

Among the collisions this year: A Buffalo woman was killed when she drove around lowered crossing arms and was hit by a train in March, investigators said. A few days after that, a driver ignored flashing lights at a railroad crossing and his vehicle was hit by a train, and five people were injured in the crash, police said.

"To completely stop crashes from occurring at railroad crossings, we need the public's help," Zelle wrote.

To that end, state officials this month are reminding Minnesotans to use common sense and heed railroad crossing warnings to avoid train-related crashes and fatalities.

Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed June "Rail Crossing Safety Awareness Month," according to a news release that also outlines the state Department of Transportation's plan to spend a total of $7.9 million in federal and state funds to improve safety at railroad crossings.

In an effort to reduce train-related incidents with vehicles and pedestrians, MnDOT will install gates and upgrade crossing signal equipment at 40 locations throughout the state this year, according to the release.

The chance of death or serious injury from a motor vehicle-train crash is 11 times greater than for other highway collisions, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reports.

According to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, 2,087 highway-rail grade crossing collisions occurred in 2013. There were 251 fatalities.

Of those, there were 53 collisions in Minnesota in 2013, including 26 injuries and six deaths, according to Operation Lifesaver, an organization that focuses on rail safety education.

There were also 10 pedestrian-trespasser incidents in 2013, which resulted in five deaths and five injuries, MnDOT says.

Minnesota ranks 15th in the nation for highest number of highway-rail crashes, and 12th for fatalities and injuries resulting from these crashes, according to Operation Lifesaver.

Zelle says the statistics are alarming and the crashes are preventable. "Driver inattention and impatience most commonly contribute to car and train crashes," he said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation says that while some people may not be familiar with highway-rail warning signs, “others simply ignore all warning signs because they are in a hurry."

Officials said it’s important to never try to beat a train at a railroad crossing – it’s hard to judge the speed of trains, which appear to be moving slower than they actually are.

Zelle says that at 55 miles per hour, it takes a fully loaded freight train more than a mile to come to a full stop, while a light rail train needs 600 feet to stop. He added that by the time the train engineer sees a vehicle or pedestrian on the tracks, it's often too late.

Operation Lifesaver has published various safety tips regarding this issue.

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