Less than a year before a train accident killed his youngest son, Scott, Tom Demboski had his own alarming encounter at the railroad tracks.
Demboski had just finished refereeing a soccer game in Waveland and was on his way back to his Bay St. Louis home. The January evening was dark and chilly, and thoughts of the calls he had made during the game filled Demboski’s mind.
Demboski drove toward the railroad tracks at Coleman Avenue, near the soccer field. The crossing had no lights, gates, bells or stop signs to warn motorists — only railroad-crossing signs.
“The windows were fogged up, I had the blowers on full speed to defrost the windows, the radio was still on from when I got there to referee the soccer game. I had the soccer game on my mind, you know,” Demboski recalled recently.
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“I eased over that damn crossing, and, lo and behold, the train passes right behind me. That thing passed not more than 10, 15 feet behind me. Unbelievable. Scared me to death.”
Demboski was shaken enough to warn Scott to be especially careful when he crossed the tracks.
Just before dusk on Jan. 24, 1993, Scott Demboski was driving to his parents’ house to borrow cheese for tacos. His parents lived less than a mile from him. But to get there, he had to cross the tracks at Bookter Street, another crossing marked only with signs.
Scott either didn’t see the train in the glare of the setting sun or tried to beat it. He died immediately when the train hit his pickup truck. He was 24.
The Coast’s main railroad line, owned by Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Transportation Inc., poses such risks for the motorists who drive over it, often several times a day.
Records don’t reflect the near-misses. They do show the people hurt or killed: From 1990 to 1994 in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, a train hit a car, truck or pedestrian at least 126 times. In those accidents, 25 people died, 49 were hurt.
The tracks have become an impediment, even a hazard, for its residents. Every day, trains move freight through a crowded stretch of downtowns, shopping malls, industrial centers — an area unfurling in the lucrative wind of legalized dockside gambling.
The railroad and state and federal governments say most accidents happen because drivers race to cross the tracks as trains approach. The railroad argues that lives could be saved by closing some crossings, but state and local officials have been slow to act on that request.
Victims of crossing accidents often claim that obstructions blocked the view of an oncoming train or that the train was going too fast. Others say crossings are not marked well enough: Of the 138 public crossings CSX owns on the Coast, 79 — 57 percent — are marked only with signs.
With Coast officials hoping for prosperous years, the nagging question remains: Why are so many people dying when they try to cross the tracks? And what can anyone do about it?
The Sun Herald spent three months examining federal and state accident reports; interviewing officials, attorneys and families of people who have lost loved ones in accidents; and analyzing data on Coast railroad accidents from 1990 through 1994.
The accidents involve collisions between a train and vehicle or train and pedestrian. Most happened at crossings.
Among the findings:
▪ More than half of the accidents happened at crossings marked only with signs.
▪ The state has the authority to close hazardous crossings but is hesitant to do so if local governments or residents raise objections.
▪ Through lack of regulation, much of the key evidence in an accident investigation ends up in the hands of the railroad involved.
▪ Families of people hurt or killed in crossing accidents find it difficult to get relief from the court system.
▪ Coast governments have not acted on CSX’s suggestion to close dangerous crossings.
The proposal to close crossings has brought suggestions — or demands — on how to make the tracks safer. They have varied, but ultimately melt down to two: Close some crossings and improve those that stay open; or slow the trains down.
At one time, Coast cities set speed limits of 30 and 35 mph on the CSX tracks.
In 1987, CSX claimed that only the federal government had the right to set limits. With the federal government’s approval, CSX then classified most of the Coast track to let freight trains run at speeds up to 60 mph.
Even so, the railroad has agreed to a limit of 45 mph to avoid ruffling the feathers of locals.
“Forty-five is a safe speed, a speed they feel comfortable with,” said Raymond Brown, CSX’s lawyer on the Coast. “And if you get hit square-on by a train, I think your likelihood of survival at 35 is virtually nil, just as your chances of survival at 45 are virtually nil.”
That leaves closing the crossings as a possible solution, and it looms as the most realistic.
Railroads nationwide have urged states and cities to close crossings they think are especially dangerous or unnecessary.
Three years ago, the railroad suggested the state work with local officials to close dangerous crossings statewide, including 54 on the Coast.
But state officials have balked at ordering the work done because they don’t want to go against the wishes of local officials and residents, many of whom say closing crossings would restrict the access of motorists and emergency vehicles in an area where routes already are few and over-traveled.
The dilemma points to one of the basic shortcomings of the railroad line and Coast transportation in general: It’s difficult to find many creative ways to move people around in a region shaped like a rope.
In Harrison County, motorists must cross the tracks to get to or from the beachfront and the area just north of it, unless they are on the county’s only overpass — Interstate 110 in Biloxi.
Closing crossings, local officials fear, would build up traffic intolerably on either side of the tracks.
Thus, one of the central questions of the debate: At what point do the deaths and injuries on the tracks outweigh the traffic snarls and hazards that would happen if some crossings were closed?
“One of the big problems is that if you shut so many down, you’re not going to have anywhere to move around in Biloxi,” Biloxi Councilwoman Dianne Harenski said in July.
“But I think we have a responsibility sometimes to protect people from themselves.”
The railroad’s take on that problem is a little different. It goes something like this: Driver, protect thyself, because our train has the right of way.
The state agrees.
“Most accidents are caused by driver error, no doubt about it. The crossbucks say yield, the stop signs say stop, the flashing lights say stop, the gates definitely say stop,” said Newton McCormick Jr., the chief of MDOT’s rail division.
“When we say driver error, we’re talking mainly about impatience. It’s amazing to me that anybody would pull around the gates.”
No doubt, that happens. McCormick also is the state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide nonprofit program to educate people on the dangers of railroad crossings. It’s sponsored by the federal government and railroad industry.
Operation Lifesaver’s dominant refrain: “Expect a train on any track at any time.” The organization stresses that trains have absolute right of way on tracks, that they don’t run on exact schedules, and that it takes a 150-car freight train 1 1/2 miles to stop.
And contrary to what many motorists believe, CSX lawyer Brown said, the burden of being alert and careful at a crossing despite obstructions or bad weather lies with the motorist, not the train engineer.
“I just don’t think you get a car-train accident at a standard crossing without the driver breaking the law,” he said. “And rain, the window up, the stereo on — those are conditions that should alert the motorist even more.”
Critics say that attitude, and the laws that back it up, place an unfair weight on the motorist. Not only must drivers combat weather conditions and obstructions, they must be alert for a train that could come at any time through a crossing that often offers only cursory warning.
Meanwhile, they say, train crews practically have free rein to cruise down the rails.
“That’s like (the government) going to Eastman Kodak and saying, `OK, you can do whatever you want, dump hazardous waste, whatever, and we’re not going to do anything about it,”’ said Kenneth Heathington, a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and an expert on railroad issues.
“We don’t do that with any industry, nor should we.”
Installing a full complement of signals at one crossing costs about $100,000. It’s ultimately the state’s responsibility to install signals, but nothing prevents CSX from giving governments money to do so.
CSX’s operating revenue totaled $4.6 billion in 1994, but the railroad spent no money to equip crossings with signals because it’s not CSX’s responsibility, said spokesman Rob Gould: “That’s just not our way of doing things.”
The same year, the railroad spent $13.3 million — less than one-third of 1 percent of its revenue — on maintaining rails and signals, which is the railroad’s responsibility.
The issue of responsibility — for installing signals, for making sure they work, for making sure trains and cars don’t wreck when they cross paths — cuts to the heart of the matter. Critics of the railroads say motorists have too much to worry about.
Placing the burden on the motorist, they say, presupposes the motorist’s complete competence. It’s analogous to not putting guard rails on bridges, trusting motorists to stay in control of their cars and on the bridge as they’re supposed to.
In reality, people try to beat trains and aren’t always alert.
“We ought to accept that as normal human behavior and build our crossings to accommodate for that,” said Chuck Hurley, senior vice president for Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Virginia-based institute is a nonprofit agency, supported by insurance companies, that examines traffic deaths and injuries.
Hurley’s solution: Congress should reconsider the nation’s rail system. It should hold hearings to find out why so many people are hurt or killed and why so many crossings are poorly marked; and how the federal and state governments and railroads can pool resources to equip crossings with lights, gates and bells.
Operation Lifesaver, however noble its intent, isn’t enough, he said.
“There’s no real way to educate people on the risk,” Hurley said. “And the penalty for a teenager should not necessarily be death.”