NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - Anthony Collman is a railroad fan. As a former conductor, he’s had his share of close calls.
It was his experience as an eyewitness to a horrifying crash after his retirement that prompted him to call for safer railroad crossings.
Collman stays in touch with the lone survivor of a train crash that took the lives of his three friends. Collman said the survivor told him that the teens had their radio too loud and they didn’t hear the train.
Chances are you don't give much thought to driving across railroad tracks unless you have to wait for a train, but government numbers show more people die in train collisions than in plane crashes.
The federal government scores every location where a railroad crosses a public street. They track how likely a particular crossing will be to have a collision in any given year.
The News 4 I-Team used those prediction numbers to identify the top 10 railroad-highway crossings in Nashville and surrounding counties that are at the highest risk for a collision.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has a priority list for making improvements at its known trouble spots, but with a budget of $5 million a year, improvements don’t happen as quickly as they would like.
News4 asked Collman, the retired CSX conductor, to visit some of the sites that the federal government ranked the highest in the Nashville area.
Greenbrier in Robertson County has three crossings on the top 10 list: Main Street (No. 3), Industrial Drive (No. 4) and Experiment Station (No. 6).
The Main Street crossing has no crossing gates to prevent cars from driving onto the tracks when a train is coming.
The Federal Railroad Administration says there is a 9% chance per year that a train will hit a car at the Main Street crossing.
A driver was killed there in December 2017. Deloyd Orville Byram of Clarksville was lucid and talking after the crash, police said, but he died later of his injuries. He was 88. He married the love of his life in 1950 and started working for the railroad the following year, according to his obit. His family said he enjoyed hard work and finding the fun in everyday moments.
More than a year after Byram’s death, the crossing has had minor improvements - some new signs and new pavement - but it hasn’t had a major safety upgrade.
Teresa Brogdon drives over the crossing regularly and feels it isn’t safe.
“It's got a ridge on the other side you can't see over it,” she said.
Collman studied the Main Street crossing at News 4’s request.
"This is a very dangerous crossing, in my opinion," Collman said. "They should put crossing gates here."
As we watched, a pickup truck drove across the tracks, even though warning bells were ringing and we could hear the distant horn of an oncoming train.
"What can I say? People need to pay attention to these railroad crossing flashers. If they're flashing, stop," Collman said.
The crash that Collman witnessed was four years ago in Louisville, KY.
He was on an outing, enjoying the day, taking video of an approaching train. That’s when a white sedan drove right into the train’s path. There was no crossing gate.
There were four high school soccer players in the car. Three of them died.
"Right in front of my eyes," Collman said. "It was bad."
After witnessing that crash, Collman lobbied the city of Louisville to add crossing gates at that intersection. It did.
TDOT plans to add a crossing gate to the Main Street crossing in Greenbrier but it’s not a fast fix. TDOT told News4 it could take a year and a half.
In 2007, TDOT proposed closing the Main Street crossing and another one in Greenbrier, but the residents didn’t want the streets cut off.
“The town rejected the proposal. They didn’t want changes,” said Erik Andersen, the manager of railroad crossing safety at TDOT. “We don’t have a very easy way to improve a crossing like that without a substantial amount of damage to the community.”
Also in Greenbrier, at the Industrial Drive crossing, a train hit a car in 2014, hurting one person. Two more people were hurt when a train hit a car in 2016.
At Greenbrier’s Experiment Station crossing, in 2016, a CSX train hit a car stopped on the crossing. There were no injuries.
The Federal Railroad Administration bases its prediction rates using factors like the crash history, the volume of train and vehicle traffic and the types of warning devices that are present.
Andersen said TDOT uses the Federal Railroad Administration’s data to help develop its own priority list.
“We have about 3,000 public road at-grade crossings. About half have crossing gates and lights,” Andersen said.
Adding a crossing gate and warning lights to each crossing in Tennessee that doesn’t already have one isn’t feasible, given the cost and other factors.
“It costs about $300,000 to install flashing lights and gates at each crossing. That would cost close to half a billion dollars to do them all,” Andersen said.
News4 found of the top 10 crossings ranked by highest prediction crash scores, four are in Nashville, two are in Lebanon, one is in Murfreesboro and three are in Greenbrier.
The crossing that ranked No. 1 according to its crash prediction score is Nesbitt Lane in Madison.
Federal railroad statistics say there's a 10.4% chance a car will be hit by a train there in a year's time.
"One crash means there is a very high likelihood of having another crash after that," Andersen said.
CSX trains hit cars at the Nesbitt Lane crossing in 2013 and again at 2016.
Joyce Taylor said she thought she was going to die.
In 2016, Taylor’s Toyota Camry was pinned on the tracks at the Nesbitt Lane crossing as a train barreled towards her.
"I hear the train coming," Taylor said, “but I couldn't go back, I couldn't go forward."
Taylor told News4’s Nancy Amons that there seemed to be some construction going on around the tracks, and she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to pull forward or wait. She pulled forward onto the tracks, she said, and just then the crossing gate’s arm came down on the back of her car.
Taylor froze as the train approached.
"I sit there and I pray and I'm holding on to the steering wheel for dear life,” she said.
The train clipped the front end of her car; she was shaken, but not hurt.
Three years earlier at the same location, an 80-year-old man who the railroad said drove around the gate was hit by a CSX train. No one was injured.
Both crashes were at night. CSX noted that the crossing wasn’t illuminated by a street lights or special lights.
There had been a series of crashes at the Nesbitt crossing in the 1980s.
“We have a project ongoing on at that location,” Andersen said. “The project is with the city and railroad. They are installing upgrades to the warning devices, such as flashing signals and pavement markers.”
He wasn’t sure of the timeline.
Second on the News4 ranking of highest predicted collisions is Pitts Avenue in Lakewood.
There were three collisions in two years.
In February 2014, Nashville & Eastern Railroad said a 47-year-old man was hit by a train which was going 20 miles per hour. No injuries were reported.
The report notes that the driver “was stopped on the crossing looking in the opposite direction so as to enter adjacent roadway.” There was a stop sign and a crossbuck sign.
Twice in 2013 drivers were hit after stopping on the tracks trying to enter the highway.
When News4 watched the Pitts Avenue crossing, several drivers stopped on the tracks while waiting to turn right onto the highway.
“Drivers should never stop on railroad tracks,” Andersen said. “They should wait back until they are sure they can go across the crossing.
Middle Tennessee Boulevard in Murfreesboro is No. 5 on the top 10 list.
As News 4 watched, drivers zoomed through the crossing even as bells sounded and the gate was coming down.
Despite the gates, there were crashes in 2012 and one in 2016.
In April 2016, a 24-year-old man went around the gate and was injured, according to the report filed by CSX.
A drivers running a flashing red light, said Andersen, is one of the worst violations he sees.
“Many drivers see that as a chance to just hit the gas instead of taking it easy and playing it safe,’ he said.
In the 2012 crash in Murfreesboro, CSX said a 23-year-old male driver reported that he fell asleep and his foot slipped off the brake, causing him to roll under the crossing gate and striking the train. That driver wasn’t hurt.
No. 7 on the list is Glenrose Avenue in Woodbine.
It had six reported collisions since 2000. In three cases, cars that had been abandoned on the tracks were struck by trains.
In July 2014, a driver who was struck in his passenger side door drove away.
There are multiple tracks at the Glenrose location. It scores a 7% chance of a collision in any year.
No. 8 on the list is Stewart's Ferry Pike in Donelson, where a train hit a car in 2015.
Nashville & Eastern Railroad said the crossing gate came down on top of the front of a car driven by a 71-year-old woman. She pulled forward slowly and stopped partially on the tracks. The front of her car was struck by the train, which spun her car around. No one was hurt.
Two crossings in Lebanon in Wilson County made the top 10 list.
South Cumberland Avenue is No. 9.
In August 2017, 76-year-old Donald Hayes of Watertown was leaving a Quick Stop parking lot on South Cumberland Avenue and made a left turn into the path of an oncoming train, according to Nashville & Eastern Railroad’s report. The exit of the market is in the middle of two crossing gates.
A Lebanon Police Department report said Hayes told police he didn’t know why he turned in to path of the train. The crossing gates were working properly and the bells were ringing. He wasn’t hurt.
That crossing has a 7% chance of having another collision in a year’s time.
Number 10 on the predicted crashes list is Hartmann Drive in Lebanon.
In November 2017, the Music City Star commuter train hit the rear end of a tractor-trailer that was trapped on the tracks by traffic. The 52-year-old male driver wasn’t hurt.
TDOT gets federal funds for improving rail crossings. Local communities must contribute 10% to the cost of the project. If an improvement project costs $300,000, the local government has to pay $30,000.
Andersen said it’s not always easy for small towns to come up with the money.
“Many communities do not budget for road crossing safety improvements,” he said. “They may be faced with buying a new sewer line, or a school, or new police cars. Many things become a priority.”
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