BY ANNIE GOELLER
For The Republic
The death of a longtime Edinburgh resident in an accident with a train this month has officials concerned and looking for any way to make railroad crossings safer.
But installing more warning signals, including arms that block traffic from crossing when a train is approaching, isn’t an option due to the cost, which could total more than $1.5 million, Edinburgh Town Manager Wade Watson said.
Instead, the town is focusing on education efforts, and looking at grants that could help pay for upgrades long-term, he said.
Sharon Gobin, 74, a well-known volunteer, was killed Nov. 6 after crossing railroad tracks on East Main Cross Street as a train was approaching. Her death was a tragic loss to the entire community, Watson said.
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“Our hearts are broken for the loss,” he said.
But the deadly accident has again raised concerns among officials about the safety of the town’s seven railroad crossings, he said.
The Louisville & Indiana Railroad tracks that cut through the town were upgraded this year as part of a plan to run more, faster and heavier trains on the tracks.
Upgrades are continuing on more northern sections of the railroad line, such as near Indianapolis, but much of the work in Johnson County has been finished. In recent months, train speeds have been increasing gradually, from the former speed limit of 25 mph to the current limit of 49 mph, Indiana & Louisville Railroad Co. President John Goldman said. But the number of trains per day has not yet increased, he said.
The plan to increase the number and speed of trains, which was approved by the federal government, raised significant safety concerns among multiple local communities that are crossed by the tracks. And Johnson County, Franklin, Greenwood and Whiteland landed a $4.3 million grant that will pay for safety upgrades to 17 crossings, adding cross arms that stop traffic when a train is approaching.
Edinburgh could not be included in that grant because the group that awarded it, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, doesn’t include the town in its boundaries.
Upgrading just one crossing can cost as much as $250,000, and with six crossings in Edinburgh with no cross arms, that cost is not something the town can afford, Watson said.
Bartholomew County has 12 grade crossings along the Louisville & Indiana line as it continues north from Seymour into Johnson County. The crossings in rural areas of the county have stop signs for drivers, but no lights or gates.
Lights and gates are at the State Road 46 and State Road 11 intersection, and warning lights are at a series of crossings through the city along Lindsey Street in Columbus.
The railroad has upgraded crossings along the line, but no changes were immediately made in the safety equipment.
A key concern is a narrow line of sight at railroad crossings, which can make it difficult for drivers to see a train approaching. With faster trains, that also is a concern because they now approach those crossings much faster, Watson said.
For at least 30 years, residents have been used to the trains going about 25 mph, but with the upgrades trains can now travel at nearly twice that speed, he said.
When the plan for more, faster and heavier trains was announced and then approved, local officials had asked for the railroad company to make upgrades to the crossings with added warning signals, but that was not required by the federal government and the railroad company has not been willing to do that work, he said.
So town officials have instead been focusing on educational efforts.
Railroad officials also have been focused on those efforts for the past 18 to 24 months, Goldman said.
Edinburgh officials have been reiterating the message of what motorists should do at every crossing — stop, look and listen — in town meetings, with stickers on town vehicles and in everyday conversations with residents, Watson said. Reaction time is shorter with trains going faster, and the upgrades have made the crossings smoother, allowing motorists to get lulled into rolling across them without stopping or slowing down, he said.
The education efforts began months ago, with officials using the disruptions in traffic while the upgrades were being done to remind residents of what was coming. And that will continue, especially with the attention on the issue after the fatal accident this month, he said.
“It’s important that our citizens be aware of the hazard and take responsibility to make sure it’s safe before crossing that track,” Watson said. “Trains don’t have the ability to stop. The only safe thing is to make sure motorists are aware and should expect a train at the crossing.”
Railroad officials have been working with every city, town and county along the rail line on education efforts, including adding signs at each crossing warning of faster trains, Goldman said. They also have been reaching out to emergency workers, schools and churches to host education programs through Operation Lifesaver, a rail safety organization that offers educational programs, he said.
On Dec. 13, railroad and town officials are planning a railroad crossing blitz in Edinburgh, where railroad employees and law enforcement will spread out among the town’s crossings to hand out safety information to drivers, and bring attention to safety at railroad crossings, Goldman said.
Along with education, Watson said he will continue to look for any potential funding that could pay for upgrades to warning signals and other safety devices.
“If there is any good that can come from this horrible situation, it’s that we all become more aware of the hazard,” Watson said.
Annie Goeller is a staff writer for the (Franklin) Daily Journal, a sister publication of The Republic.
Here is a look at the railroad crossings in Edinburgh and their warning signals.
Naomi Street: Flashing lights
West Center Cross Street: Cross arms, flashing lights
East Main Cross Street: Flashing lights
Thompson Street: Flashing lights
Perry Street: Flashing lights
East County Line Road: Flashing lights
West County Road 900N: Stop sign