Between 1992 and 1996, 55 people died in Tennessee as a result of collisions between trains and motor vehicles. Every year, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) distributes approximately $3.2 million in federal funds to upgrade signals at dangerous railroad-roadway crossings.
But the results of a Scene investigation indicate that the distribution system for the Rail-Highway Grade Crossing Program is riddled with problems. Because inaccurate data are used to determine which intersections need upgraded signals, federal administrators charge that the system is a waste of money.
Robert Finkelstein, database manager for the Office of Safety at the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington D.C., says, “The situation in Tennessee is a joke. You put garbage in your database, you get garbage out.”
There are approximately 3,400 railroad crossings in Tennessee. TDOT keeps information about them in a massive, computerized database. Terry Cantrell, the TDOT engineer who oversees the railroad signal program, says the database is “our biblewe never deviate from it.”
The list ranks Tennessee’s railroad crossings from 1 to 3,400 or so, according to their potential danger. Crossings ranked at the top of the list are considered to be the most dangerous. Cantrell says the rankings are important, because he only has the funds to upgrade approximately 35 crossings a year.
The rankings are determined by a computer analysis of 13 separate pieces of information, including, among other data, the number of trains that pass over the crossing every day, the maximum speed at which they can travel, and the last time a collision took place at the crossing.
Cantrell says he double-checks to make sure that “every piece of data is accurate” before recommending that federal funds be spent to upgrade the signals at any crossing. But the Scene obtained a copy of part of Cantrell’s database and ran its own check of his figures.
Examples of bungling abound. Take, for example, the case of a railroad crossing at Motivation Drive in Lawrenceburg that ranked relatively high, at No. 140, on TDOT’s October 1997 list. Cantrell’s database says 12 trains travel through the Motivation Drive crossing every day. But TDOT’s own inspectorsas well as Tennessee Southern Railroad, which is responsible for the crossingsay only two trains cruise through Lawrenceburg on a typical day. Tennessee Southern president Dennis Prince says no one at his railroad “recalls” getting a call from Cantrell to check the train count. Crossings with more train traffic, of course, are considered more dangerous and rank higher on Cantrell’s list.
Or consider Cantrell’s report on another Tennessee Southern crossingHicks Street in Lawrenceburg. Cantrell’s database says 20 trains travel through the intersection daily, more than twice Tennessee Southern’s count. Cantrell’s database also shows at least six crossings where Tennessee Southern trains are allegedly allowed to travel at 40 mph, twice the speed reported by Tennessee Southern and the TDOT inspectors.
In numerous instances, TDOT inspectors contradict Cantrell’s reports. Inspectors sometimes return from the field giving a good safety report on a railroad crossing. The lights flash, they say, the equipment works dependably, and safety checks are being conducted. And yet Cantrell recommends that the signals be replaced.
Consider, for instance, the sleepy Motivation Drive crossing in Lawrenceburg. Last July 14, TDOT railroad inspector J.D. Stephens personally visited the crossing station as part of his regular duties, and determined that its flashing red lightsthe ones that warn motorists of approaching trainswere functioning properly. He wrote a report to that effect.
Just a month later, however, Cantrell decided to replace the Motivation Drive signals with virtually identical, if newer, flashing lights. More than $60,000 in federal funds was spent on the upgrade; more than $60,000, some charge, was wasted.
Double-checking and triple-checking information is standard practice among transportation officials. Drew Thomas, a railroad-highway grade crossing safety engineer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, says his agency triple-checks all its data. But a number of railroad officials in Tennessee say Cantrell almost certainly has failed to double-check his data before authorizing equipment upgrades.
A spokeswoman for CSX Transportation, one of Tennessee’s biggest railroads, says her company can find “no records of conversation or correspondence” with TDOT “to verify the information” that was being used in Cantrell’s database. A written statement from Norfolk Southern Corp. says it is “not possible” to determine if Cantrell “double-checks each and every piece of data.” A spokesman for Central of Tennessee Railway says Cantrell has only checked isolated pieces of data about Central of Tennessee in “informal” conversation.
Asked to explain the conflicting data, Cantrell suggested that his TDOT coworkers “may have failed” to check their facts, or that the railroad operators may have supplied TDOT with “erroneous” information.
However, confusion over facts and figures cannot explain why the railroads are so slow in replacing out-of-date signals, even after TDOT has approved the upgrades. In many instances, upgraded signals are not installed until years after they are authorized. Since 1995, Cantrell has authorized CSX to use federal funds to upgrade its signals at 26 railroad-roadway crossings. Every one of those crossings has been the site of an accident involving a CSX train. Yet CSX has only completed installation of one of the signals. Cantrell shrugs off CSX’s foot-dragging, saying he has “virtually no leverage” if the railroad delays the work.
That doesn’t have to be the case. North Carolina’s Drew Thomas says that, when a railroad falls behind in installing new signals, he sends a monthly letter asking why the work has not been done. The result, Thomas says, is a “lawyer’s nightmare,” because, “if there’s anything a railroad understands, it’s liability.”
If TDOT has failed to make sure signals are installed where they should be, the department could indeed find itself vulnerable to lawsuits. Already, at least one watchdog lawyer is keeping tabs on the department’s activities. “TDOT has failed in its duty to protect the public by using improper procedures to allocate federal signal-crossing money,” charges Pamela Rymer O’Dwyer, a Chattanooga-based victims’ rights attorney. “As such, the state is clearly guilty of negligence.”
Cantrell says he is not to blame if new signals are not installed promptly at crossings where accidents take place. He says the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does not inform him about accidents at railroad crossings. Pointing an accusing finger at the feds, Cantrell says, “Ask the FRA why they are fucking 24 months behind in getting the information to me.”
But Thomas P. Woll, an engineer in the FRA office that compiles data about crossings, says Cantrell should have no problem finding out about railroad accidents, since accident information is updated monthly, and is available online every day. The Scene visited the FRA’s Web page. Sure enough, a list of Tennessee accidents as recent as December 1997 is already available.
What’s more, Woll says, “If Cantrell wants the accident data, it’s a phone call away. I can have it on his desk the next morning by FedEx.”
Cantrell is not allowed to disclose data related to the Rail-Highway Grade Crossing Program. In 1995, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that TDOT cannot release its railroad crossing data to the public.
In Cantrell’s defense, it should be noted that the number of deaths at Tennessee railroad crossings has decreased during his watchfrom 17 in 1988 to eight in 1996. TDOT spokeswoman Luanne Grandinetti defends Cantrell’s program as “one of TDOT’s best.”
Cantrell’s critics, however, aren’t impressed. “If you throw $3 million a year at a problem, you are bound to have some success due to blind luck,” says one Tennessee-based rail expert
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