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Washington County staff study prioritizes needs of railroad crossings

Commissioners approve contract for first phase of work to Alpha Space Control Co., of Chambersburg, Pa.

July 23, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

Washington County has more than three dozen railroad crossings, and motorists face a daily danger from large passing trains, many weighing 3,000 tons or more.

“Anytime you have a railroad that’s crossing in the same space as a vehicle, there’s the opportunity for a collision,” said Robert Slocum, deputy director of the county Division of Public Works.

Although rail-highway collisions have dropped by about 80 percent since 1972, 1,960 total incidents were reported nationwide on public and private crossings in 2012, including 271 fatalities, according to preliminary data from the Federal Railroad Administration.

A recently completed study by Washington County staff members took an in-depth look at all 37 county railroad crossings, identifying immediate needs as well as long-term safety-improvement goals that can be tackled in the coming years, Slocum said.

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The county’s crossings — 27 with active warnings such as gates, bells and lights, and 10 with passive warnings like signs and pavement markings — were evaluated based on traffic and train volumes, according to Slocum.

However, crossings within the city of Hagerstown or on state roads were not included in the long overdue study that took about a year to complete, Slocum said.

Of the 27 active-warning crossings, 13 currently utilize gates with flashing lights and bells, Slocum said.

“We’ve had a study back in 1981 that was done,” he said. “It was time to look holistically at all county crossings under the new criteria and new models that are provided by the federal government to see what our priorities should be.... This is a good news project, in my mind. We’re not reacting to something that’s happened; we’re out in front.”

The Washington County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a contract for the first phase of work to Alpha Space Control Co., of Chambersburg, Pa.

The $205,680 contract involves installing and upgrading signs and pavement markings at existing railroad crossings throughout the county, Slocum said.

“As a whole for Washington County, we do have an abnormal amount of railroad crossings. We were known as the Hub City for 100 years, and safety for our citizens is paramount,” Commissioner John F. Barr said. “It’s what county government ... is all about.”

Slocum said the first phase of work is important to bring some crossings up to standards set by the Maryland Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

“That’s the minimum,” he said.

Slocum said two additional phases will take place in the coming years to address other aspects of the railroad crossings, including working with the rail companies to improve physical devices such as gates and lights, as well as possibly redesigning some roadway approaches to address needed profile changes and sight distances.

“We wanted to get out of the gate running with the immediate stuff and put this in phases so we can get this done,” he said.

Total expenses for the first phase of work are estimated about $220,000, which includes about $5,000 for final inspection and testing as well as $10,000, or 5 percent, for construction contingencies, Slocum said.

With approval from the five commissioners, Slocum said work is expected to begin in mid-August, with a estimated completion date of Sept. 27.

By next summer, Slocum said he’s hoping to be able to come back to the commissioners to receive approval to make some physical upgrades at some of the county’s railroad crossings.

“Over this winter, we’ll be working with the railroads, trying to get contacts and communication on what improvements we can make, sharing this with them,” he said.

Slocum said he also intends to share the comprehensive railroad crossing study with state officials in the hopes of securing money through the Highway Safety Improvement program to help with additional projects.

Leaders commend effort

County leaders commended Slocum and his staff for their work on the study, which Slocum estimated amounted to more than $50,000 worth of work by employees.

Each crossing had to be visited and measured, then individual plans had to be drawn up and evaluated, he said.

“These folks have rallied around the railroad crossings, and we’re doing everything we can to make them more visible, safe” for citizens, Barr said. “It’s a threefold project.”

There have been several accidents at railroad crossings in the Tri-State area in the past few years, but none have resulted in fatalities, according to The Herald-Mail’s archives.

Most recently, a Greencastle, Pa., man was flown to York (Pa.) Hospital in critical condition on July 8 after the truck he was driving struck a moving train on Mason Road, north of Greencastle.

Another incident, occurring on May 3 in Hagerstown, sent a Chambersburg, Pa., woman to the hospital with nonlife-threatening injuries after she tried to drive across the tracks and was hit by a train engine on Potomac Avenue. She was charged with failure to stop at a railroad crossing.

In August 2012, two people were injured and taken to the hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., after their vehicle was hit by a train at the Tavern Road crossing. A child in the vehicle was unharmed.

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