Collision Course: Utah County has by Far the Highest Number Per Capita of Railway-Highway Accidents in the State

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railroadEd Carter, utahvalley360.com

Forty-nine-year-old Utah County resident Kim Cody is comfortable living his life by the winds of chance.

With the flip of a coin in 1974, Cody moved from southern California to a farm just off I-15 near Geneva Steel. Since that moment when a silver quarter smacked the word “Orem” on his map, Cody and his wife, Connie, have worked to build an excavation business in north Provo while raising four boys.

Kim Cody has a fleet of dump trucks, bulldozers and tractors. He is enamored with big machines.

But the elements of circumstance — and large mechanical objects — have not always brought this carefree farmer good fortune.

One day in April 1996, Cody’s fate began a train route from Chicago through the Midwestern states and across Utah. At 2:23 p.m. that day, a freight train arrived at a road crossing near Provo’s 1680 North and Geneva Road, coasting at 40 miles per hour.

Cody was driving to work in his 1973 Ford pickup when he creeped onto the tracks, his truck loaded with 100 gallons of diesel fuel. That’s when he looked to the left for the second time – and saw the train bearing down on him.

“I threw it in reverse,” says Cody, who knew that millions of tons of steel crashing into the tanks of fuel would set off an explosion. He kept backing up, but contact was unavoidable. Even today, Cody recalls the train as the meanest, blackest thing he’s ever seen. The last thing he remembers is the sound of the train’s whistle.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘I am going to die and I am going to watch it happen,’” Cody said.

The huge steel train smashed into Cody’s passenger side wheel, just a few feet from where Cody sat. The train swatted the Ford off the track and the pickup landed on its side near a ditch. The truck did not explode, and Cody was pulled from the wreck with little injury.

“I remember sitting on the asphalt asking myself, ‘Did that just happen to me?” Cody said.

For Cody and a disproportionately high number of Utah County residents, it happens.

DANGEROUS COUNTY

A Utah Valley Magazine analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data shows that Utah County motorists are more likely than those of any other county in the state to have a collision with a train. In the 1990s, Utah County had by far the highest number per capita of railway-highway accidents in the state, according to the administration’s Office of Safety Analysis.

Three of Utah’s six most dangerous crossings are in Utah County, and five of the top 10 cities for train-car accidents are our county. Despite a population that is just 41 percent that of Salt Lake County, Utah County had 94 percent as many accidents from 1990 to 1999.

“The reason Utah County has such a problem is a high number of trains and a high number of conflict points,” says Paul Hawker, associate Utah County engineer and a highway-rail accident investigator for the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. “Then you have a public that is railroad illiterate.

“They don’t realize it takes a mile to stop a train. They don’t realize trains don’t have steering wheels.”

As a social policy problem, vehicle-train accidents defy logic. Their causes are as varied as the personalities of the motorists who get hit. Their prevention is hampered by quirky real estate holdings and conflicting government agencies. And the facts contradict perception.

In Utah County, you are more likely to have a collision with a train between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. than you are at any other time of day or night. November, December and January are the worst months, but bad weather does not cause most car-train accidents. In fact, most happen in clear weather and, in nine out of 10 cases, the driver’s view is not obstructed.

That begs the question: Why do vehicle drivers put themselves in a position to get hurt?

“I’ve always wondered why,” says Payson Police Chief Mike Openshaw. “It seems to happen over and over again. I don’t know.”

It’s not always trains hitting cars, either. Twenty-one percent of the time, Utah County motorists drive straight into a train already in the crossing.

“It’s complacency,” says American Fork Police Chief Terry Fox. “People cross the tracks hundreds of times a month and they don’t think about it.”

WHO IS AT FAULT?

Forty-five-year-old Evan Jones believes it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes at the rail-highway crossing near his American Fork home. Over the course of 25 years, Jones has seen numerous drivers swerve around safety gates guarding the tracks at about 400 West and 200 South.

For Jones, the explanation for Utah County’s high incidence of rail-highway accidents is simple.

“It’s the drivers,” he said. “They get fed up waiting for the trains or for the arms to come back up.”

That is likely the case at many Utah County crossings, but the problem’s causes and solutions are more complicated than that.

When it comes to car-train accidents, there is plenty of blame to go around. Each of the 15 Utah County motorists who died during the 1990s could have avoided that fate. Preventing trains from hitting cars comes down to a little luck, a little vigilance and — in many of the cases — better warning devices.

Local governments have little responsibility because cities and counties do not have authority to alter dangerous crossings, said Utah County Commissioner Gary Herbert. Most of the power lies with the railroads, which are highly autonomous, he said.

“We don’t have the ability to say, ‘There will be a signal light here or a railroad crossing there’,” Herbert said.

More than two-thirds of the car-train accidents in Utah County take place at crossings that do not have warning lights and safety gates. The most dangerous crossings are unquestionably those with only roadside signs and pavement markings.

“It’s not enough,” says Cody, pointing to a single sign at the crossing where he got hit. “There are trees and, until you get right up to the tracks, you can’t see.”

Utah’s 13,000 miles of track constitute an odd form of property ownership. The railroads own the tracks and a few feet of property on either side, but a confusing mix of government agencies must work together to get warning devices installed.

Generally, on a local road, municipal governments are responsible for pavement markings and stop signs. The state, applying federal guidelines, makes determinations about where safety gates and warning lights will be installed.

State officials regularly monitor dangerous crossings and take action to correct the most egregious problems, said Toby Bare, railroad crossing inspector for the Utah Department of Transportation. Many of the most dangerous crossings in Utah during the 1990s — including one in Clearfield, one in Payson and two along south State Street in Salt Lake County — either have been closed already or soon will be, Bare said.

Federal law gives trains the right of way at highway crossings, yet some people still believe the railroad companies don’t do enough to prevent accidents. In fact, nearly every time someone is injured or killed in a train-vehicle accident, the victim or victim’s family files a lawsuit, typically naming as defendants the railroad and the government.

But government and railroad officials say they are just the fall guys. Nine out of 10 accidents are directly attributable to carelessness on the part of vehicle drivers, said Mike Furteny, Union Pacific spokesman for the western region.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

Hawker understands the eagerness on the part of victims and their families to place blame in case of an accident. No motorist believes he or she could be responsible for the devastation that follows a train-car accident.

Operation Lifesaver, a national organization dedicated to educating drivers about railroad safety, teaches thousands of Utah high school students every year in drivers’ education classes that the impact of a train hitting a car is comparable to a car running over a 12-ounce can of soda pop.

Actually, the ratio between a six-ton train and a 3,000-pound car is nearly identical to the ratio between a 3,000-pound car and a 12-ounce can. Given that fact, it’s remarkable that more people aren’t killed in train-car collisions. In the 1990s, 21 percent of Utah County motorists in a car-train collision died, and another 22 percent were injured.

For about 70 volunteers in Operation Lifesaver’s Utah organization, even one death or injury is too many. In addition to lecturing drivers’ education classes, the presenters sometimes stage mock accidents to demonstrate the impact of a train.

One such demonstration in 1996 brought dozens of Mountain View High School students to an Orem crossing, where a train and car had been arranged to show what could happen. It was a graphic and effective way to teach. That same year, the Utah Legislature mandated that all high-school drivers’ education classes include one hour of instruction on rail crossing safety.

Those efforts are laudable, but accidents still happen. Should the railroads and government agencies do more? Cody thinks so.

“How tough could it be — when we have the technology — to have sensors … and give some kind of lighted warning when a train is coming?” he asks.

Actually, the hang-up is not the technology but the money.

Utah has more than 2,000 rail-highway crossings; just under 10 percent of those crossings are in Utah County. Each year, the state Department of Transportation receives from the federal government about $1.2 million to upgrade crossings, but that’s only enough money to install lights and gates at a half-dozen crossings annually.

Outfitting a single crossing with lights and gates can cost up to $200,000, and the planning and construction process can take up to 18 months.

Only a fraction of that federal amount gets funneled to Utah County in a given year, but recently state authorities have recognized Utah County drivers’ propensity for getting hit by trains.

“State officials know Utah County has a lot of traffic and a lot of crossings,” Hawker said. “As a result, we have gotten our share of federal money.”

In 1990, less than 20 percent of the at-grade rail crossings in Utah County had warning lights and gates.

The danger posed by that fact had Utah County officials begging state transportation planners to dedicate several years’ worth of federal funds to improving the situation.

In 1996, UDOT completed design work on a $5.5 million Union Pacific corridor study that looked at highway-rail crossings from Spanish Fork to Santaquin. Two years later, the state began working to upgrade 20 crossings and close 11 others in that corridor.

Coal traffic coming from Carbon County through Spanish Fork Canyon and then turning south toward Las Vegas brings as many as 30 trains each day to the area. Utah County is a crossroads for rail traffic moving from places like Denver and Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. In addition,

Geneva Steel and Provo’s Pacific Cast Iron Pipe Company are major rail users.

On average, 18 trains barrel along the tracks each day through cities like Payson, where residential growth in the last decade made once-remote rail-highway crossings into high-traffic death zones. Growth taxes local infrastructure in high-profile areas such as water, sewer and power, but Utah County’s growth also contributes to overburdening the rail crossing system.

The solutions are sometimes too little, too late.

UDOT maintains a priority list of dangerous rail crossings, but even those at the top of the list won’t see improvement for a while.

“The money is spent now all the way through 2005,” says Bare, UDOT’s inspector.

Hawker believes the corridor project, which construction crews are still working to finish, will help.

“We looked at the roads that had the least purpose or the worst angles,” he said. “If we came across a dangerous crossing, we looked at what we could do to eliminate it without hurting the south end of the county.”

The corridor study, the first of its kind in Utah, probably should be replicated in north and central Utah County, Hawker believes. But it’s not likely state planners will again dedicate so large a portion of their resources to a single county. Ideally, every crossing would be eliminated or fitted with a gate.

“The safest crossing is the one that doesn’t exist,” Hawker said. “If we can eliminate crossings and upgrade others so we funnel people into certain areas, we’ve made the public safer.”

Cody feels lucky to be alive after his chance on the tracks. He hopes his experience teaches others how dangerous a speeding train can be — and how precious life really is.

“Those moments remind you that we can be extinguished quite quickly,” he said.

STOPSI~1Most dangerous RR crossings in Utah
• Ranked by number of car-train accidents from 1999-2000
1. 200 S. Main St., Clearfield (9)
2. 90000 S. State St., Sandy (5)
3. 10400 S. 4200 West, Payson (4)
4. 6400 N. 5100 West, American Fork (4)
5. 10400 S. State St., South Jordan (4)
6. 2000 S. 560 West, Provo (3)
Addresses listed are county coordinates. Source: Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis.

Car-Train accidents by county (1990-2000)
1. Salt Lake (78)
2. Utah (73)
3. Davis (36)
4. Weber (18)
5. Tooele (10)
6. Cache (10)
All graphics were compiled using data maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis.

 

s200_ed.carterEdward L. Carter covered Utah County news for three years for the Deseret News. He is now pursuing a degree at BYU’s law school and teaching journalism at BYU. Joe Dana is a BYU student.

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