Augustine Ubaldi, P.E. was interviewed on September 8, 2016 to discuss standards relevant to railroad crossings. The discussion surrounded a tragic event in which a young mother was killed in a collision with a crossing train in Pennsylvania.
Article: Railroad Crossing “A Perfect Storm of Undesirable Factors”
HALIFAX—The railroad crossing in Halifax where new mom Trisha Hoffman was killed Monday is “seriously deficient,” according to two railway experts interviewed by PennLive.
Pennsylvania state law doesn’t require drivers to stop at all railroad crossings. Instead, the law requires drivers to stop for flashing lights, gates that are down or oncoming trains. But to know a train is “oncoming,” you have to see it, said Gus Ubaldi, an airport and railroad engineering expert with Robson Forensic in Lancaster.
And that’s not something that drivers leaving the boat ramp at Susqeuhanna Trail Road and Route 147 can do until they’re nearly at the railroad tracks. The crossing is known as a “passive” crossing because it has no flashing lights or gates.
A smaller passive crossing just north of the crossing where Hoffman died has a stop sign posted before the railroad tracks to specifically direct drivers to stop. But there is no stop or yield sign at the paved crossing where the fatal wreck occurred, even though it is recommended by nationally accepted standards for railroad crossings, Ubaldi said.
Instead, there is a single faded crossbuck sign off to the right.
When asked about signage decisions, Norfolk Southern Spokesman Dave Pidgeon initially told PennLive that the crossing is a public crossing, which would mean the state’s Public Utility Commission— not the railroad— is responsibility to determine proper signage and required safety precautions.
When Pidgeon was informed that the crossing is in fact listed as a private crossing by the PUC, PennDOT, and the Federal Rail Administration, then Pidgeon declined to return phone calls and requests for interviews.
Instead, Pidgeon ignored questions posed by PennLive via email and wrote back that “whether a grade crossing is public or private, vehicle drivers and pedestrians should yield to oncoming trains.”
But it’s not that simple at this crossing, according to the experts.
A driver traveling 10 mph on Susquehanna Trail Road needs to be able to see a train 732 feet down the track from 70 feet before reaching the crossing, according to national safety guidelines.
But at the crossing where Hoffman died, approaching drivers can’t see anything beyond the trees and brush. When drivers finally are in a position to see the train, it can be too late.
“People think the minute you see a train you’re going to stop and they wonder why people don’t stop,” Ubaldi said. “But you have to determine it’s a hazard and then make the decision for what you have to do— take your foot off the gas and put on brake.”
A car traveling 10 mph travels 15 feet per second, Ubaldi said. With a typical human reaction time of two seconds, a car would travel 30 feet.
“Maybe she was looking to the right,” Ubaldi said. “Then when she looks left, the train is right there. She goes to stop, but at 10 mph, it carries her into the crossing.
The train that struck Hoffman’s car Monday was traveling at 45 mph, or 66 feet per second. It is one of four trains that pass through the crossing daily.
The railroad reported two previous wrecks at the crossing, in 1994 and 2003, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, but no one was injured in either crash.
With such poor “sight distance,” additional signs need to be added to the crossing to make it safe, according to Ubaldi, or the trees and brush need to be removed.
“There’s nothing wrong with having less sight distance, per se,” Ubaldi said. “But you then have to mitigate that, either by putting up a stop sign, or flashing lights and gates on a road of this nature.”
Neighbors reported hearing the train blowing its whistle as it approached the crossing Monday, just before Hoffman’s vehicle was hit. But a whistle warning easily can be muffled by a car radio and air-conditioning, the experts said.
Hoffman’s car had likely been sitting in the sun for more than five hours at the ramp as she and her husband kayaked on the Susquehanna River. When she returned to her vehicle, the first thing she likely did on this 91-degree day was turn on the A/C to cool down the vehicle’s interior, Eck said.
Meanwhile, the whistle has other limitations, Ubaldi said. It only signals that a train is in the area, he said, it doesn’t let drivers know its location, proximity or direction of travel.
“It’s like when you hear an ambulance and you slow down and start looking around to see where it is,” Ubaldi said. “But in this case, you can’t see anything. Six-tenths of a mile north is another crossing. So if I hear a train whistle, I don’t know where it is or if it’s blowing for this crossing.”
By the time a driver on Susquehanna Trail Road sees where the train is, Ubaldi said, it’s too late. People critical of Hoffman’s inability to detect the train are using 20/20 hindsight, he said.
“I would not fault her,” he said. “The issue is not did she know there was a crossing, but could she know a train was coming in order to stop?”
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Railroad Engineering Expert
Gus Ubaldi, P.E. has investigated numerous railroad employee injury cases. These cases have involved injuries sustained while walking on track, operating switch machines or climbing on and off equipment, both for the plaintiff and for the defense.
Gus has been involved with Class I and Class III railroads and major transit systems in a variety of railroad engineering positions including engineering director for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority as well as consulting engineering and track supervisor roles for Penn Central. Gus designed and provided construction management for track structure, station and bridge repairs, and yard track improvements. He also conducted track inspections and performed maintenance. Gus is a licensed professional engineer in multiple states.