By the Way

We published ‘Blood on the Tracks’ in 1995. People are still dying.

A CSX locomotive passes a memorial Wednesday, March 8, 2017, near the site of Tuesday’s fatal train-bus wreck at the Main Street railroad crossing where four bus passengers died. A candlelight vigil is planned for Sunday.
A CSX locomotive passes a memorial Wednesday, March 8, 2017, near the site of Tuesday’s fatal train-bus wreck at the Main Street railroad crossing where four bus passengers died. A candlelight vigil is planned for Sunday. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

I was thinking about “Blood on the Tracks” as we waited for a news conference to start beside the CSX railway at Main Street in Biloxi, where a train slammed into a bus Tuesday, killing four senior citizens on a casino charter.

Greg Lacour wrote the series for the Sun Herald in 1995. His stories explored the deaths on the CSX railway, an inescapable artery for anyone who works or lives on the Mississippi Coast.

​The number of CSX crossings on the Coast ​posed a threat to Coast motorists​ then and still does now.

CSX has long advocated closing crossings to save lives.

Laura Phelps, a CSX media representative, told me Friday: “We’ve always believed the safest crossing is the one that doesn’t exist.”

The state Department of Transportation and local governing boards have the power to close crossings, but residents are always resistant. They don’t want to be inconvenienced. They worry about slower emergency responses.

Today, federal records show, we have 135 CSX crossings on the Coast. In 1995, when Greg wrote his series, we had 138. Not much of a reduction, even though the Federal Railway Administration in the 1990s urged railroad companies to close 25 percent of their crossings.

Wow, they still haven’t solved that problem, have they?

Greg Lacour, who wrote the 1995 ‘Blood on the Tracks’ series

Biloxi has been talking about closing six crossings, but the Main Street crossing is not one of them. Main Street is a major thoroughfare.

However, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich told me, before the news conference started, that he will consider closing the Main Street crossing to buses and trucks with long wheelbases.

​Friday, Gilich ordered large signs posted at Main Street and other steep crossings prohibiting trucks and buses. The Public Works Department made the signs after police stopped a bus from crossing the tracks at Main.

Read the series: Blood on the Tracks

The ​long vehicles can bottom out on the tracks because of a steep, uneven crossing grade. The senior citizens’ charter bus appeared to be stuck on the tracks before the train slammed into it.

Lawsuits are already being filed. One couple mentioned the terror they felt as they watched the train barrel toward them. They were among 44 injured.

As for fatalities, federal records show 29 people died from 2007 to 2016 in vehicle-train accidents on the Coast CSX tracks. Greg reported 25 people died from 1990 to 1994, so it would seem fatalities are down.

Buddy Hammett owner of Hammett Electric talks about the video that his security camera caught of the casino tour bus going north on Main Street just moments before it became stuck on the railroad tracks and then was hit by a train, killing for peo

Still, how many deaths will it take before the political will is mustered to close some of these crossings? And why was it so difficult to close the Main Street crossing to trucks and buses? It is not the only Coast crossing with a steep grade, either.

Greg, a New Orleans native, is now a freelance writer working in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has been following news of Tuesday’s tragedy. We’ve been in touch by message and email. I was his editor on the “Blood on the Tracks” series.

He wanted to know if much has changed in the intervening 21 years. I told him some crossings have been upgraded, with gates added, but few have closed. (In Biloxi, 20 of 29 crossings are in the eastern part of the city even though the population has thinned there dramatically since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.​)

Greg said:

“When I heard about the bus wreck, my reaction was not surprise, exactly, but disgust and disappointment: ‘Wow, they still haven’t solved that problem, have they?’

“I spent months reporting and writing the Blood On the Tracks series in 1995 because it was obvious even then that the tracks represented a potentially lethal hazard that officials could lessen with some political will and a relatively modest amount of money; simply close unnecessary or especially dangerous grade crossings and install lights and gates at high-traffic ones.

“It’s good to hear that they’ve made some progress, and, of course I understand post-Katrina budget constraints. But I still have a hard time understanding why there hasn’t been a more concerted, urgent effort to improve safety along the line, from Alabama to the Pearl River.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

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