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Official wants crossing gate at site of fatal crash

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:09 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The railroad crossing at Maple Avenue in Evans City where a bus and train collided on April 26.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Tracks were left behind from an accident at the Maple Avenue railroad crossing in Evans City where a bus and train collided April 26.

Warning gates don't always prevent fatal collisions between trains and drivers, statistics show, but at least one Butler County official wants to examine installing safeguards at an Evans City railroad crossing where a person died and 10 suffered injuries when a train hit a van last month.

“That is a bad crossing. You don't have a lot of sight either way,” said Bill McCarrier, chairman of the Butler County commissioners. “In an ideal world, I'd like to see a gate at every rail crossing.”

Few rail crossings in Pennsylvania lack signals and gates. The crossing in Evans City at Maple Avenue is among 205 crossings statewide without safeguards, which account for less than 6 percent of the state's 3,518 public rail crossings, according to PennDOT.

Evans City's mayor, Dean Zinkhan, said no changes are under way for the Maple Avenue crossing, but he didn't rule out requesting a gate or some other type of warning device.

“Whether to have flashing lights, a gate or both is usually determined by the amount of traffic and how many trains go through a crossing each day,” said Erin Waters-Trasatt, a PennDOT spokeswoman.

Only two trains cross Maple Avenue each day, she said. Police say that as few as 10 vehicles a day cross the tracks there.

The state Public Utilities Commission has no records of previous incidents at the crossing, said spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

Installing a gated crossing with lights costs $150,000 to $175,000, Kocher said. Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Gates and warning devices don't guarantee safety, statistics show.

More than half of last year's 1,960 crossing collisions nationwide were at crossings with active warning devices. And 65 percent of last year's fatalities — 178 of 271 — occurred at crossings that had either flashing lights or lights and gates, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Evans City crash occurred April 26 when the driver of the 12-seat bus operated by the Alliance for Nonprofit Resources stopped at the crossing and was hit by a train owned by the Allegheny Valley Railroad.

A crew member blew the whistle and tried to stop the train. Why the bus stopped on the crossing is still not clear, law enforcement officials say.

Claudette Miller, 91, of Callery, Butler County, died of head and upper body injuries. At least three other people remain hospitalized. Driver Frank Schaffner, 59, was treated and released at Butler Memorial Hospital.

Schaffner had pills that didn't match the labels of their bottles, and law enforcement officials are awaiting results of his blood tests.

Roughly $7.2 million in federal funds are available each year to safeguard rail crossings. Railroads are responsible for maintaining warning systems.

In 2011, PennDOT installed 26 new warning devices and 10 new gates in Pennsylvania. In 2010, the agency installed 20 warning devices and one gate.

Nationally, there are 129,644 public rail crossings, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. In 2012, 20,153 were equipped with flashing lights and 44,536 were equipped with flashing lights and gates.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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