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Tragedy narrowly averted when car, train collide

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Police say fault is 'driver in-attention'

By BEN CARLSON

Had the train been going a hair faster or the vehicle a hair slower, tragedy would likely have been the result last Thursday morning.

Fortunately for Lisa Chesser of Willisburg, her battle with a train that foggy morning ended with her being shaken up and the rear bumper of her SUV being torn off.

It could have been much, much worse, experts said.

“The conductor said the train was not up to full speed,” said Officer Joe Saunier of the Lawrenceburg Police Department. “If it had been, we could have been working a fatality instead of just a minor injury.”

Chesser was headed east on Bond Lillard Road when a Norfolk Southern train clipped her bumper on the driver’s side.

Saunier said when he arrived, the blinking red light at the crossing was working, as was a warning bell.

“It was foggy, but she either tried to beat the train or wasn’t paying attention,” said Saunier. “The accident report is going to be listed as her in-attention.”

Saunier said Chesser was treated and released at the scene by Anderson County EMS.

News of the accident is yet another example of why people need to pay more attention when crossing railroad tracks, according to B. Wayne Gentry, executive director of Kentucky Operation Lifesaver, an organization dedicated to safety at railroad crossings.

“Because of the size of the train, you cannot tell its speed,” he said. “If you try to beat an oncoming train, you’re rolling the dice, and how many times do you think you can roll those dice before they come up snake-eyes?”

The train that clipped Chesser’s car came to a stop several hundred yards from the intersection, even though it was going less than the 35 mph speed limit trains are allowed to travel in the city.

“If a train is running 50 mph, it takes a mile to stop,” Gentry said. “If it’s going 30 mph, it could take up to a half a mile to stop. They can stop, but they can’t do it quickly, that’s why they have the right-of-way at all grade crossings.”

That rail crossing and several more in Anderson County don’t have the arms that lower when a train approaches to block oncoming traffic, such as those on Main and Woodford streets in the city.

Those arms are installed at the direction of the state’s Department of Transportation, according to spokesman Mark Brown.

Brown said the state maintains a database that takes into account the amount of traffic on a road, accidents and the number of trains.

“There are other special factors, too,” Brown said, “such as school bus traffic and the handling of hazardous materials.”

That information is fed into a computer system, which annually spits out which rail crossings across Kentucky are in line to be upgraded. Brown said the state is largely at the mercy of federal funding, which amounts to around $1.8 million each year.

That’s not a lot of money to go around, considering that installing the arms at an intersection can cost upwards of $200,000.

“And we oversee all of the rail crossings in the state, not just on state highways,” Brown said.

Although the state is responsible for installing safety features, it’s up to the railroad to maintain it, Brown said.

And, Brown said, the vast majority of the state’s rail crossings don’t include those arms.

Nearly half of the state’s 2,350 crossings have only crossbucks — just the railroad sign with no lights or bells. About one fourth are equipped with arms, lights and bells, and the rest have only lights and bells, said.

In Lawrenceburg, it’s not uncommon to wait several minutes or more for a passing train, especially when they occasionally come to a stop while crossing Main, Woodford or Court streets.

Gentry said he understands why people sometimes get aggravated, but they should keep in mind the century of benefits trains have brought to Lawrenceburg.

“Lawrenceburg was built on each side of the tracks,” he said. “The railroad has been there for over 100 years, and if the rail wasn’t there, the town probably wouldn’t have even existed.”

E-mail Ben Carlson at bcarlson@theandersonnews.com.