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Talk about grade crossings safety returns following deadly LIRR crash

Federal data show dozens of other railroad crossings on Long Island are considered more dangerous than the one at School Street in Westbury - the site of Tuesday's accident that killed three people - but they will remain open indefinitely.

This LIRR grade crossing at School Street in

This LIRR grade crossing at School Street in Westbury, seen on March 5, 2016, was the site of Tuesday's accident in which three people were killed when their SUV was hit by two trains. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The state plans to close only two of the 10 most high-risk LIRR railroad crossings as part of its $2.5 billion Third Track project, leaving intact most of the junctions where the next fatal accident could occur, federal data show.

Concern about the safety of the Long Island Rail Road's nearly 300 grade crossings has heightened since three people were killed Tuesday in an accident at the School Street crossing in Westbury — one of seven such locations set to close as state officials construct a 9.8-mile-long third track between Floral Park and Hicksville.

The Federal Railroad Administration's Web Accident Prediction System, a database that ranks the potential for collisions between trains and vehicles at grade crossings, shows dozens of other locations just as dangerous as School Street, but they will remain open indefinitely. They include the two crossings with the greatest likelihood for another accident: Broadway in Bethpage and Carleton Avenue in Central Islip.

FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said the accident database was a risk-assessment tool and one of several diagnostic resources used by state highway authorities to determine where safety improvements should be made. But, he cautioned that “great care should be taken in characterizing” its findings.

"It is misleading and potentially irresponsible to declare that specific crossings are the most or least dangerous, without consideration of other data and factors affecting the likelihood of an accident,” Flatau said. 

Although MTA officials acknowledge the dangers of having cars and trains share the same space, they contend the cost and scope of crossing elimination projects typically make them a nonstarter.

”Obviously, you can't do all 300," Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said of grade crossing separation projects, in which the intersections were unlinked by running trains either over or under a roadway, or closing a street altogether.

LIRR officials previously have estimated the cost of a single such project, which often requires purchasing and building on private property, at about $100 million. "They’re not cheap," Pally added.

Before the state moved ahead with the plan to eliminate seven crossings between Floral Park and Hicksville as part of the LIRR expansion project, just two crossings had been jettisoned during the previous two decades, both in Mineola, the site of the deadliest crossing accident in LIRR history when a train crashed into a van at Herricks Road, killing nine teenagers.

“For $400 million, we could do five or six grade crossing eliminations, or buy 350 new [train cars]. That’s a choice," Pally said. "So far, the priority has not been to eliminate grade crossings. Will that change? I don’t think it’s going to change dramatically, no.”

Although eliminating all the crossings is not feasible, experts said extending the length of the crossing gates and installing cameras to catch motorists who maneuver around the gates were among the steps that would improve safety.

Deadly collision 

The School Street crossing was the site of Tuesday's accident where, police said, an SUV fleeing from the scene of a minor fender bender, drove around the downed safety gate and into the path of two intersecting trains traveling in opposite directions. The vehicle collided first with a slow-moving eastbound LIRR train from Penn Station carrying about 200 passengers before being battered by a westbound Manhattan-bound train carrying 800 passengers moving at full speed.

The mangled vehicle, sandwiched between the trains, erupted into flames, killing the vehicle's three occupants — all immigrants who worked at a nearby grocery store. Eight passengers on the westbound train were taken to an area hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.

Construction on an effort to sink School Street under the tracks is set to begin in the spring of 2020, following years of concerns raised by Westbury business owners and community residents about the location, from cars that end up trapped between downed gates to trucks that mistakenly drive on the tracks. Every day, 211 LIRR trains barrel through the busy intersection, located in an industrial area not far from dozens of private homes, at speeds of up to 80 mph, federal data show.

Annette Farragher, president of Dependable Acme Threaded Products, a School Street business that makes threaded rods and nuts, long has contended the crossing was "an accident waiting to happen."

A Federal Railroad Administration database — which ranks grade crossings based on five years of crash data, daily vehicular traffic and average train speed — lists four accidents at the School Street crossing since 1981, although none in the past five years. Three accidents involved a pedestrian on the tracks, two of which resulted in death, the reports show. The first accident, on May 22, 1981, involved a vehicle striking a train while moving over the crossing. No one was injured.

Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro said although the crossing was heavily trafficked by pedestrians, including students, it was not inherently more dangerous than other similar junctions. The crossing, he said, had adequate signage and clearance for vehicles and had not been the scene of any previous serious crashes of this magnitude.

"This accident could have happened anywhere," Cavallaro said. "This accident was the result of the driver of that vehicle making a series of deliberate decisions and mistakes in judgments."

The FRA ranks the Westbury crossing as the 45th-most-likely to have a collision among the nearly 300 LIRR crossings across Nassau and Suffolk. 

Only two of the crossings set to be eliminated — third-ranked Urban Avenue in Westbury and seventh-ranked Covert Avenue in New Hyde Park — are listed among the agency's most likely to have a collision, while a third, Willis Avenue in Mineola, comes in 12th. The others include New Hyde Park Road (No. 35); Main Street in Mineola (53) and 12th Street in New Hyde Park (63), according to federal data.

While not disputing the validity of the FRA’s rankings, MTA officials noted that the federal agency took into account physical characteristics of a crossing — like sight lines — and accident history, but not necessarily other important factors, like train traffic. They pointed out that crossings in Glen Cove and Patchogue, through which relatively few trains operate daily, both made the top 10, while some crossings along the congested Main Line in Nassau were far lower.

“The goal is to obviously put a lot more trains through what is one of the most highly developed areas of Long Island,” said MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber, who noted that gates at some of crossings on the project’s corridor were already down for a half-hour out of every hour during rush hours. "In order to say whether those seven should be the highest priority, you really need to consider the additional train traffic that comes when we put the third track into service.”

And, Lieber said, as busy as the railroad’s Main Line through Nassau is already, it’s bound to become even busier after a third track is laid — making the elimination of the seven crossings along its path all the more critical.

Eliminating the seven crossings along the project corridor was a key selling point when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the MTA in 2016 resurrected the Third Track project, which had been stymied for decades by opposition from communities along the project's path.

Cuomo has trumpeted the safety benefits of the seven planned crossing eliminations as a major goal of the Third Track project.

The state Department of Transportation and the MTA have no plans to separate any other crossings outside the Third Track effort, including the Broadway crossing in Bethpage, considered the region's most dangerous. It's located just east of the Hicksville station, four miles outside the project's corridor.

A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment Friday, referring questions to the MTA.

Longtime LIRR commuter Stephen Foley, 56, has spent years pushing the MTA, through letters, calls and public testimony, to address the problem at Bethpage, where he said he personally had witnessed three fatal pedestrian accidents. He hoped the station’s two crossings, at Broadway and at Stewart Avenue (ranked 47th-most dangerous), would have been included in the Third Track project.

Now he worries the increased train traffic expected with the completion of the third track “is just going to make it worse.”

“This is the deadliest crossing, and it’s being ignored,” Foley said. “Every time there’s an incident, the MTA Police are there for like a week or two after the incident. And then that’s it. That doesn’t do anything. … It’s going to continue to happen. Until you fix the major problem, it’s just a Band-Aid.”

Boosting safety

Despite Tuesday's accident, MTA data show the number of accidents at Long Island rail crossings, in which a train comes into contact with a person or vehicle, fell from 17 in 2017 to seven in 2018.

MTA officials have attributed the reduction in accidents to a number of safety initiatives taken following a Feb. 3, 2015, incident in which a Metro-North train struck a sport utility vehicle at a grade crossing in upstate Valhalla, killing the driver and five passengers on the train.

The agency expanded its public outreach efforts, including through its grade school education program known as TRACKS — Together Railroads And Communities Keeping Safe — which reached 114,000 people last year, according to the MTA. 

It also secured a $5.2 million federal grant for safety upgrades at crossings that would pay for cameras at 43 LIRR and Metro-North crossings to investigate accidents and analyze operations; new traffic control devices at crossings in Deer Park and Oceanside; and more and better signs and pavement markings at many other crossings.

“This awful tragedy reminds us that it is critical that the federal government do even more to research and underwrite safety upgrades at accident-prone crossings," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), whose staff assistant, Kimarah Timothy was on the eastbound train involved in the Westbury crash and suffered minor bumps and bruises. "This includes designing ways to prevent going around safety crossings, boosting public awareness of the dangers at such crossings, as well as improving reporting of dangerous problems at crossings.” 

Schumer plans to hold an event Monday on Long Island where is expected to announce legislation that would increase funding and safety improvements for grade crossings, staffers said.

Upon joining the agency last April, LIRR president Phillip Eng also directed the railroad to install flexible, vertical "delineators" and make other safety upgrades at all crossings to prevent incidents of vehicles accidentally turning onto tracks at crossings. Since the effort was completed in August, there have been no such incidents, according to the LIRR.

The LIRR also has worked with Waze, the Google-owned navigation app, to integrate safety alerts about crossings and LIRR rights of way into its GPS technology.

The next step

Carl Berkowitz, a private transportation safety consultant who has investigated LIRR crossings accidents, said the MTA and state could be doing more to safeguard its intersections, including by installing devices along the centerline of roadways leading up to crossings to prevent drivers from driving around crossing gates. Extending the length of the gates also could help, said Berkowitz, adding, “There’s an engineering solution to any problem.”

And, while agreeing that eliminating nearly 300 all grade crossings is not feasible, Berkowitz said the MTA and state should seriously consider tackling its most dangerous ones, regardless of the potentially steep price tag.

“I think if you add up the cost of the litigation, there’s enough justification to get rid of the dangerous ones more quickly,” said Berkowitz, of Moriches, who estimates the cost of out-of-court settlements on crossing death cases could exceed $5 million. “You add them up, and a bridge is not that expensive, is it?”

LIRR officials said Friday that they agreed that eliminating a crossing altogether was the ultimate solution to improving safety at a location, and would not rule out future elimination projects, which would be funded in the MTA's five-year Capital Program. The next such program is scheduled to be released later this year. 

Railroad officials said the agency had gradually moved away from crossings over its 185-year history, including by elevating its entire Babylon line over more than 40 years through the 1970s. It also has fought against the construction of new crossings, including one long sought by the Town of Brookhaven to be built in Mastic-Shirley.

The proposed crossing safety improvement that has gathered the most support in recent years would allow the LIRR and local municipalities to automatically issue summonses to motorists caught on camera driving around lowered crossing gates. Such a measure has been at the top of the MTA's wish list for years, but past bills have stalled in Albany, in part because of the unpopularity of red light cameras, officials said.

Following Tuesday's crash, State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) became the latest politician to propose an LIRR crossing camera bill, and hopes to have the needed momentum to make it law. 

"This is a no-brainer," Thomas said. "This should have happened years ago."

Evan Eisenhandler, New York State coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit that educates pedestrians and motorists on how to safely coexist with rail crossings, preaches the 3 Es — education, enforcement and engineering. A key component, he said, is urging police to aggressively ticket motorists and pedestrians who maneuver through lowered gates at crossings.

"Unfortunately, people don't always treat grade crossings like an intersection," Eisenhandler said. "But there is a lot of merit in certain technology, including cameras and enhanced police enforcement at crossings. Anything that gets us to a net improvement is something we support."

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