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Special Report: Dangerous Crossings

Missouri has one of the largest railroad systems in the country. With around 3,800 public crossings, it’s ranked 10th in the United States in miles of track.

Missouri’s rail system is also one of the deadliest. Last year, eight people were killed in crashes involving trains at railroad crossings, placing it in the top 15 states with the highest number of fatalities, according to data compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

One of those fatal crashes happened just two days after Thanksgiving in Monroe County. Stanley Thurman, 80, of Paris, was hit by a train at the crossing on County Road 235, just down the street from his home.

“My dad, every time we would visit and leave, he would say, ‘Now, you stop at that cross again, and you make sure you look both ways several times, because that’s hard to see,'” said his daughter, Jenny Crouch. “We have asked ourselves 1,000 times, ‘What happened that day? What was so different about that day?'”

Crouch believes the railroad crossing where her father was killed isn’t safe. She said the combination of the one-lane gravel road combined with the angle of the track and tree line “makes for a perfect storm.” It’s one of about 1,900 passive public crossings in the state, which means it doesn’t include flashing lights or a gate to warn drivers that a train is coming.

“It’s not that the warnings are not there, it’s that people are not heeding the warnings,” said Tim Hull, the executive director of Missouri Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit safety education organization. “At the rural crossings where there’s the passive warning devices like the cross bucks signs, it requires people to be a little more aware of what’s going on around them.”

ABC 17 News looked through the past 10 years of FRA crash data to find the railroad crossings in mid-Missouri that have had the most crashes. All but two of the crossings had passive warning devices.

One railroad crossing along Industrial Drive, between Argonne Street and Hughes Street, in Jefferson City has had three separate crash incidents with one fatality. In May 2012, authorities said a 29-year-old man was killed after he did not stop at the crossing and crashed into a train.

Another crossing just outside of Madison in Monroe County had two crashes that killed one person in 2008 and injured another in 2005. There’s four other railroad crossings in Monroe County that crack the top 100 for most number of collisions in the state since 2007.

Here’s a breakdown of other mid-Missouri counties with railroad crossings that break the top 100:

“How many fatalities, how many injuries is it going to take to get something done?” Crouch said. “Just put something visually flashing to alert people that ‘Hey, there is a train coming,’ because you cannot always hear these trains.”

Crouch said she has reached out to MoDOT about her concerns with the crossing. She said she’s still waiting for officials to come take a look at it.

MoDOT is in the process of upgrading the 1,900 passive public crossings in the state to have active warning signs. Eric Curtit, administrator of railroads, said it costs about $250,000-$300,000 for each upgrade.

“For every crossing that we see that we want to upgrade, there’s 10 just like it,” he said. “It really goes to how much funding people want to invest in the safety of the crossings.”

Curtit said MoDOT can upgrade about 30 crossings a year with its current budget.

“Missouri has a lot of train traffic,” he said. “We take very seriously in making the best decision with the limited resources we have.”

Railroad crossings along Highway 22 in Audrain County are ones that have been upgraded from passive to active warning devices over the past decade.

“All of those folks that were killed or injured lived on these roads and crossed these tracks daily, several times a day in some instances,” said Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller. “It was just a matter of being distracted, a matter of thinking of something else or just not paying attention.”

A federal law requires all public passive railroad crossings in the state to have either a stop or yield sign, in addition to the cross buck warning sign, by the end of 2019. All crossings should have an emergency contact sign as well.

Law enforcement and train safety officials said it ultimately comes down to drivers paying more attention.

“The train always has the right of way, and the traffic has to yield to that right of way to the train,” Hull said. “So it requires them to pay close attention when they approach that no matter what kind of warning device there is.”

Hull said people trespassing and walking on train tracks has been a bigger issue over the past couple years. Last year in Missouri, four people were killed and seven were injured in trespassing incidents.

National Rail Safety Week 2017 is Sept. 24-30.

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