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Most ND railroad intersections guarded only by signs despite increased traffic, safety concerns

LARIMORE, N.D. - A minority of open, public railroad crossings in North Dakota -- about 17 percent -- are guarded by flashing lights, gates or both, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.

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LARIMORE, N.D. - A minority of open, public railroad crossings in North Dakota -- about 17 percent -- are guarded by flashing lights, gates or both, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Meanwhile, most crossings, nearly 83 percent, are marked with crossbucks, stop signs or no sign at all, according to FRA data.

That was the case with the 36th Street Northeast crossing east of Larimore, where an empty BNSF train collided with a school bus full of children on the first day back to school in January.

In the aftermath of the crash, which claimed the lives of two people, local residents demanded that gates to be installed at the crossing, which was marked with stop signs and crossbucks, or white X's bearing the words "railroad crossing."

"Our state's got to do something," resident Richard Lunski said the day after the crash. Lunski lives not 100 yards from the crossing where the crash occurred, as does Amy Burns, whose 63-year-old father Darvin Friederich died at the same crossing after a train collided with his vehicle in 2009.

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Memories of the 2009 crash came flooding back to both the Lunskis and Burns after the more recent collision, three months ago today, and both parties called for crossing arms to be placed at the crossing.

Plans are now in motion to install flashing lights and gates at the crossing.

But transportation officials say active signals like crossing arms are no silver bullet to railroad crossing accidents.

"It is not our goal to signalize 100 percent of the crossings in the state," said Scott Zainhofsky, of the North Dakota Department of Transportation. "A signal isn't an end-all, be-all safety device."

Peter Pomonis, North Dakota's coordinator for Operation Lifesaver said that while engineering -- that is, warning devices like flashing lights and gates -- is one piece of the puzzle, education is another.

"There are three E's to rail safety: engineering, enforcement and education," said Pomonis, whose organization focuses solely on the education piece.

"It ultimately comes down to people's behavior around railroad tracks," he said. "In rural areas, people may cross the same track every day. They may not be expecting a train. ... They should always be expecting one."

An increased risk

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With economic opportunity pouring into the state in the oil boom, both railways and roadways are beset by increased traffic.

In February, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said rail traffic in and out of the state has increased by 144 since 2009.

Operation Lifesaver recently issued a news release citing FRA numbers showing railroad crossing accidents have risen slightly almost every year in North Dakota since 2006. Last year, there were 28 accidents involving trains and vehicles or pedestrians, compared to 13 in 2007, according to statistics from the FRA.

"With all that comes an increase in risk," Pomonis told the Herald.

Still, many of the state's crossings calculated to be the most accident-prone in any given year are waiting for upgrades.

Two of the state's crossings counted among the 10 most accident-prone in 2013 are marked only with crossbucks, the FRA reports.

Both crossings are in Williams County in western North Dakota and both have had two accidents in recent years.

At the crossing three miles east of Tioga, N.D., one of the accidents resulted in no injuries. In the other, Marvin Bell, a 62-year-old Parshall man, was driving his 2006 Kenworth truck over the tracks in August 2012 when a freight train going 60 mph struck his truck, leaving Bell dead and 30 rail cars derailed, according to news reports and the FRA accident report. The cars were carrying freight like Christmas trees and lawn chairs.

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At the other crossing, about three miles southwest of Ray, one accident resulted in no injuries and the other left a 59-year-old man injured after his vehicle was struck by a freight train pulling 113 cars and going 55 mph in September 2010, according to the FRA accident report.

But the "accident prediction value," as the FRA calls the number reflecting the probability of an accident occurring at any one crossing in any one year, is not intended to be a stand-alone measure for how dangerous a crossing is, the FRA says.

The value is generated using certain factors -- including the crossing's five-year accident history, average trains per day and train speed limits -- but not others -- like road congestion, sight obstructions and bus or hazardous material traffic.

The number is meant to be used in tandem with other factors to decide which crossings need upgrades.

But the accident prediction value does get at the gist of it.

"If the crossing ranks high on their list, it's more likely high on our list," said Zainhofsky, the NDDOT official.

He agrees there is no hard and fast formula for choosing which crossings are upgraded.

Among the factors considered when upgrading a crossing are the FRA predictor list, the amount of traffic by both trains and motorists across the crossing, speed limits, sight obstructions, hazardous material routes, proximity to schools and school bus traffic.

The cost

Following the January collision in Larimore, the crossing at 36th Street Northeast rocketed to the top of the list.

Plans were put in place to install crossing arms and lights at the intersection within weeks of the crash, with the cost estimated to be about $423,000, according to Nick West, the Grand Forks County Engineer.

"The railroad gives us that number, and we have no control over it," said West, though the county will pay just 5 percent of the bill.

Zainhofsky said installing crossing arms typically costs between $200,000 and $500,000, but that lately cost estimates have been falling in the $500,000 end of the price range.

The state DOT pays for most of the cost -- 90 percent -- of upgrading the crossing using federal funds specifically designated to improve highway-railroad crossing safety, with local entities covering the rest of the cost.

North Dakota received about $3.2 million in such funds last year, Zainhofsky said.

But that money can only go so far when crossing arms run close to half a million dollars.

"Frankly, that's why there aren't very many of them that go in because they do cost so much," West said.

Zainhofsky said the state upgrades about 10 crossings per year.

Those upgrades could be anything, from adding reflectors to sign posts to installing flashing lights and gates. It could also mean updating already existing flashing lights and crossing arms.

Out of the 10 crossings, three or four are generally upgraded to flashing lights and gates each year, Zainhofsky said.

Over the last five years, 16 crossings have had flashing lights and gates newly installed, according to DOT data.

Seven of them went to crossings in Oil Patch counties: three to McLean County, three to Mountrail County and one to Williams County. Six more went to the northeastern part of the state: two each to Cavalier and Walsh counties and one each to Grand Forks and Ramsey counties.

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