Close look at rail crossings

By Jim Haley

Herald Writer

EVERETT — The trains may be going faster, and soon there will be a lot more of them riding rails through Snohomish County.

Some will be commuter trains, taking cars off crowded freeways, when Sound Transit begins its northern commuter rail route, probably in 2003.

Some will be added passenger trains, as Amtrak pushes to become more efficient along the I-5 corridor.

All of them will be deadly.

The issue of rail-crossing injuries and deaths is rising rapidly around the nation with Amtrak, the national passenger rail service, eyeing high-speed trains for densely populated areas. The Federal Railroad Administration reported 402 fatalities nationwide in 2000.

Amtrak has asked Congress for permission to raise an additional $12 billion over 10 years for high-speed rail, much of it to improve grade crossings.

In Washington state, efforts are under way to make crossings safer.

"Our role is to make sure the level of safety at each crossing is appropriate relative to the changes that occur in train operations," said Jeff Schultz of the state Department of Transportation.

According to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., there was only one death last year at rail crossings in the state, 20 in 1990.

Most of the injuries and deaths stem from those who trespass on railroad right-of-way, company spokesman Gus Melonas said.

"We’ve been extremely aggressive in educating the public," Melonas said of the improving record at crossings.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Stuckart said his organization has put safety first, hiring a consultant to look at track and crossing issues along the Burlington Northern route it plans to use for the Sounder commuter rail between Tacoma and Everett.

The southern leg of the Sounder has already started operating, and the speeds will be increased as new safety improvements are implemented, Stuckart said.

The same gradual approach will take place when the northern leg of the commuter rail line between Seattle and Everett starts running in early 2003. It will be a little easier in the Seattle-Everett leg, however, Stuckart said.

The trip between Seattle and Tacoma has around 40 street crossings. Between Seattle and Mukilteo, there are only eight, said Melissa Flores, project coordinator with the Sounder commuter rail.

Those are crossings involving public roads. There are many other private crossings, including one being championed by north Edmonds resident Jeff Thomas.

Thomas, a lawyer in Seattle, has filed a lawsuit against Sound Transit hoping to block the start of the rail commuter line. He claims that the agency failed to address impacts to those who walk the beaches along the 30 miles between Seattle and Everett.

A beach stroller himself, Thomas also is a member of the Sunset Bay club at Norma Beach, where he said young children and the old need to cross the tracks to have beach access. They will be put in jeopardy by the increased rail activity eyed by Sound Transit, Thomas said.

"We’re worried about our kids," Thomas said.

The Sound Transit effort will add a dozen trains a day, he said, and "you’ve got hundreds of people walking the beach that need to cross the tracks to get back to their neighborhoods."

Things have been relatively safe for a while in Snohomish County.

According to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, there are only four rail crossings in Snohomish County that had three or more accidents since 1991.

The top site is along Reiter Road between Gold Bar and Index. There have been five vehicle-train accidents at that location. There were three each at Dayton Street in Edmonds, at the Pacific Grinding Wheel crossing in north Marysville and just north of Stanwood at 102nd Avenue NE.

None of those accidents produced fatalities, according to administration’s statistics.

Before Sound Transit inaugurates its commuter rail to Everett, it will spend money on crossing improvements.

Those include barriers to prevent drivers from going around crossing arms, and high-tech devices that warn controllers if there’s ever a defect in a crossing signal. Sound Transit also contributed to solving a major crossing headache in Everett — the Pacific Avenue overpass now under construction, Stuckart said.

"The trains won’t go faster until it’s safe," he added.

You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447

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