"It is a wonder no one got killed," was a repeated comment by members of the Cherokee County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday as they viewed three pictures of demolished pickups, one each from the three collisions this year at the same railroad crossing of F Avenue near the ethanol plant.
The photos were brought in by Sheriff Dave Scott, who discussed what seems to be an extremely dangerous railroad crossing that has no flashing lights or crossing arms.
However, when viewing the crossing, it doesn't seem particularly dangerous. There is good visibility when approaching from either direction. Trains reportedly travel no more than 40 m.p.h. at the crossing and blow their horns. Although there are no flashing lights or crossing arms, the crossing is clearly marked.
Scott said that sheriff's patrol cars have parked near the crossing a couple of times recently and everybody stopped before the crossing.
"They'll see a sheriff's car even if they don't see a train," Scott said.
Regardless of the lack of any apparent visibility problem, three near fatalities within a few months have put the crossing on the short list of the Iowa Department of Transportation's planned locations for crossarm installation. The trouble is that even being on the short list may mean it could be some time before any safety device is installed.
Most of the cost of the DOT for a crossing safety device is reimbursed by the railroad. The fund for Canadian Northern Railroad crossing safety devices has been used up and is awaiting more appropriations.
The three accidents have many things in common as well as some differences. All involved pickups being struck by the engine rather than the vehicle running into the side of the train. Two of the drivers were construction workers and one was a lifelong local resident.
Two were going one direction and one was going the other.
A contributing factor that was speculated on is that construction is going on in the area, distracting the drivers who were looking at what new thing was happening. Another potential factor is the fact that vehicles now have noise reduction properties that keep exterior noises, like a train horn, from being heard by the driver, particularly if a radio or CD player is playing.
The biggest factor is the fact that traffic is increasing, both vehicle traffic in that particular part of the county and the number of trains coming through the county. Ron Wetherell, chairman, noted that some years ago there might only be one train a day coming over the tracks through the county but now there are several each day.
Train transportation, once the main means of long-distance movement of products, had gone down considerably several decades back due to competition from trucks but now train transportation is making a comeback.
Jeff Simonsen, supervisor, noted that when he was in western Nebraska some time back, he was made aware that there was much more train traffic there and Nebraskans were more conscious of the need for cautious driving. When Simonsen was ready to return, he was cautioned to look out for trains. Simonsen quoted a western Nebraskan as saying, "We kill two or three Iowans every year over here with trains."
Wetherell noted that there is at least one more dangerous intersection in Cherokee County without safety crossing devices. He said the L40 crossing near his business in Cleghorn has had a fatality a few years back and a non-fatal accident not long ago.
The supervisors will request that a railroad representative meet with the supervisors at a future meeting.