Hudson Valley congressional members Sean Patrick Maloney and Nita Lowey joined local elected officials in Chappaqua Monday afternoon to urge Congress to pass key rail legislation following last month’s deadly Metro-North crash in Valhalla.
From 2012 to 2014, there were 81 accidents at highway-rail crossings in New York State, resulting in 15 deaths and 23 injuries, according to Maloney. He said 95 percent of deaths involving trains happen at highway-rail crossings. A crash occurs at a grade crossing in the U.S. every three hours on average, Lowey said.
“All of us who depend on Metro-North to get to and from work every day can identify with the horrible tragedies we have seen recently,” Maloney said. “There’s something particularly haunting about a commuter rail accident, where someone leaves the house and never comes home again to their family and to their kids.”
A passenger rail bill, which includes the Rail Crossings Safety Improvements Act, would allocate $300 million annually for local communities, which would receive 90 percent of the necessary funding from the federal government for the improvement or relocation of grade crossings. Local officials would be able to use the money to make changes in their communities.
Lowey and Maloney agreed that the goal is to eliminate as many dangerous grade crossings as possible. Standing just feet away from the Roaring Brook Road crossing, Lowey noted the area is unique because of its proximity to the Saw Mill River Parkway and Horace Greeley High School. As a result, she said, the area often sees traffic backups involving young and inexperienced drivers, which creates a dangerous situation.
Maloney said one of the key elements of his legislation is funding technological advancements that could utilize Wi-Fi and GPS signals to stop trains. In addition, weight sensors that detect the presence of a car on the tracks could be linked to the technology and be used to automatically engage the train’s brakes.
“I don’t understand how, in 2015, we don’t have the technology that can send a strong signal to the person driving a train and have an automatic stop without the engineer doing anything,” Lowey said. “If there’s something on the track, it should stop the train in sufficient time.”
The measure, which is scheduled for a vote in the House this week, also sets aside $10 million for a high-visibility national enforcement and education campaign. Similar to the “Click it or Ticket” initiative, the campaign would inform the public of the dangers of grade crossings and how to react when approaching one. Most people are unaware, for example, that the gates used to prevent cars from entering a crossing are designed to break away so a vehicle stuck on the tracks could back up, Maloney said.
Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to rail safety education, would be one of the organizations to benefit from the money. It holds age-specific classes for anyone from preschoolers to experienced drivers about the dangers of rail crossings.
Evan Eisenhandler, executive director of the organization, said many drivers today are distracted, whether it be from their car’s GPS or eating while driving. One of the most important elements of railway safety is to teach drivers to pay attention to the markings and signage when they’re approaching a crossing.
“When you’re driving, those are lifesaving clues that there’s a hazard up ahead,” Eisenhandler said.
Many have theorized that Ellen Brody, the driver whose SUV was on the tracks and struck by the train at the Commerce Street crossing in the Valhalla, was unfamiliar with the area. Lowey stressed that steps are needed to ensure drivers are provided with clear warnings when approaching grade crossings.
New Castle Supervisor Robert Greenstein, whose town lost two residents in the Valhalla crash, said the municipality is exploring how to make the Roaring Brook Road grade crossing safer. He stated that a bridge to divert traffic over the crossing is possible as long as the municipality receives the necessary funding.
“I believe there’s a will to do it and there’s certainly a need to do it,” Greenstein said.