NEW IBERIA — Railroad safety experts consider the layout of the La. 88 railroad crossing, where five people died from a crash in December, one of the most dangerous because it’s less than two car-lengths from a highway intersection, leading to traffic backups that can trap a vehicle in the path of an oncoming train.
But although the crossing’s layout and accident history would appear to qualify it for safety upgrades state transportation officials say are planned elsewhere in Iberia Parish, none are in the works to address the problems at the La. 88 crossing — even though there’s been at least one crash a year there since 2012 involving a vehicle stopped on the tracks.
The trap is something 70-year-old Phyllis Leblanc faced on Dec. 22, as she and her husband, her twin 12-year-old grandsons and their two friends traveled home to New Iberia in the middle of an evening thunderstorm, according to witness accounts told to Leblanc’s family members. One of those accounts came from an off-duty first responder in the line of traffic who witnessed the crash.
State Police confirmed Leblanc was stopped on the tracks when an Amtrak passenger train crashed into her vehicle. Leblanc and the two friends died at the scene, while her husband and one of her grandsons died later at a hospital.
Although police won’t confirm further circumstances surrounding the crash until a completed investigative report is released, witnesses told Leblanc’s family that vehicles were in front of and behind the woman’s Ford Taurus before the crash, all waiting to turn on to La. 182 from La. 88.
Not every scenario ends in tragedy, but it’s common at Iberia Parish railroad crossings for traffic to back up over the tracks, said Parish Councilman Tom Landry, whose District 3 includes the La. 88 crossing and two others along La. 182 he said are particularly problematic.
At the intersection of La. 182 and Airport Boulevard, which feeds traffic from the Acadiana Regional Airport, tractor-trailers often have no choice but to stop on the tracks while waiting to turn onto the highway. A few miles south, at La. 3212, the railroad crossing is near not only the highway intersection but a third road that leads into the city limits.
These are only a few of about 1,300 more crossings statewide with similar configurations, according to the Department of Transportation and Development.
Landry said the aged designs in Iberia Parish are flawed when paired with today’s traffic volume.
“Those three intersections are problematic, and I’m not sure what we can do,” Landry said.
Some railroad safety experts say one measure that could have prevented the tragedy is a traffic signal at La. 182 and La. 88 linked by sensors to approaching trains. The sensors would trigger the light to turn green as the crossing guard lowers, allowing any vehicle in front of a car stopped on the track to move forward and out of the way.
But other experts say there are no simple solutions.
An estimated 6,100 vehicles pass over the La. 88 crossing daily, and somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 vehicles travel daily past the intersection on La. 182, according to DOTD figures.
Fourteen trains — seven during the day and seven at night — cross the intersection each day, according to Federal Railroad Administration crossing inventory forms, which collect traffic and safety information about railroad crossings around the country.
The average speed of trains at the crossing is 70 mph, according to the documents. Freight trains can travel up to 60 mph, and the speed limit for Amtrak trains is 80 mph.
Drivers who find themselves stopped on the tracks have little time to react. According to Federal Railroad Administration rules, the gates are activated and trains are required to sound horns 15 to 20 seconds from approaching a crossing.
Railroads are required to periodically submit updates on the forms they are required to submit to the federal agency with traffic and safety information. They detail information about each crossing’s traffic volume and safety features so regulators can identify accident trends around the U.S. and determine safety initiatives moving forward, an Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said.
But whether that information is reliable is questionable.
Both state- and railroad-submitted versions of the forms began misreporting more than a decade ago whether the La. 88 crossing — and at least another two crossings nearby — was within 500 feet of an intersection. For at least 30 years prior to that, the forms had correctly noted that the crossings were within that distance, with a further notation that the crossings were within 75 feet of an intersection.
Completed versions of the forms submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration show that from 1970 to 1996 — a “yes” box is checked, with the further notation explaining the crossing is less than 75 feet from an intersection — but the “no” box is checked on forms submitted from 2003 to 2015.
“That’s a pretty key factor or parameter when you’re looking at the safety of a crossing,” said Ronald Eck, a civil engineering professor at West Virginia University who specializes in researching warning and traffic-control devices at road-level railroad crossings.
The misreporting of the information “creates some interesting safety issues,” Eck said.
The change in reporting occurred after BNSF Railway took ownership of the tracks, with all but one of the reports submitted since 2003 compiled by the railroad company. A spokesman declined to comment on the issue.
“The referenced crossing is owned and maintained by BNSF Railway. The investigation regarding the December accident is ongoing. It is BNSF policy not to comment on issues relevant to these matters until the investigation is completed,” Joseph Faust, a spokesman for the railway’s southern region, wrote in an emailed response to questions
Bill Shrewsberry, DOTD’s lead highway rail safety engineer, said the state uses that information to select and prioritize safety improvement projects. But, he said, the state discontinued submitting the information more than a decade ago in favor of maintaining an internal system.
“The state of Louisiana had problems with the (Federal Railroad Administration) — the lack of accuracy. We made a policy decision not to submit those updates,” Shrewsberry said.
Still, the federal agency data counts at least 13 accidents at the crossing since 1970, with at least three other deaths before December’s fatal crash. The most recent upgrade to the La. 88 crossing was the January 2015 installation of a sign warning drivers against stopping on the tracks, according to DOTD. Before that, crossing guards and lights were installed in 2003.
Bob Comer, an Ohio-based railroad accident investigator, reviewed the accident reports and pointed out a consistent pattern among the crashes.
“One of the most important details is what the vehicle was doing at the time of the crash,” Comer said. “What do I see over and over again? Stopped on the crossing. Now that’s a whole different situation than somebody driving around the lowered gate.”
Comer said the Leblanc family’s car wouldn’t have been trapped if a traffic signal had been installed at the intersection, one with a sensor that recognizes when vehicles are on the tracks and forces the light at the intersection to turn green when a train is approaching.
“All around the country, that has been done,” Comer said.
The Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices recommends traffic signals at railroad crossings like the one at La. 88, which controls traffic through a stop sign and has a simple sign warning drivers against stopping on the tracks.
According to the manual — which the state transportation department follows — a traffic control signal should be considered at such a crossing if an engineering study determines it meets two criteria. The first is clear: that the rail crossing is within 140 feet of an intersection.
The second part is based on a model where the number of vehicles per hour using each of the two intersecting roadways is measured during the highest volume hour for rail traffic, and the information is plotted on the graph based on the distance from the crossing to the intersection. The point must be above the indicated curve.
But Louisiana transportation officials say a number of factors go into deciding what kinds of safety measures to put in place at a crossing, not just the number of accidents and fatalities. And, they say, traffic signaling systems aren’t always the best answer.
“You could actually be creating more contact points for accidents by putting a signal somewhere. There’s a lot of things that go into determining where a signal should be,” DOTD’s Shrewsberry said.
Allan Zarembski, research professor and director of Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware, expressed a similar attitude toward linking traffic and railroad sensors.
“I have some serious concerns about that because of all the reaction times involved,” Zarembski said, pointing out that train sensors are sometimes known to malfunction too.
Zarembski reviewed the La. 88 crossing layout and noted issues with the design, but he said aggressive driver education also should be considered when it comes to crossing safety.
“No. 1, it’s a highway design problem. It shouldn’t have been designed that way,” Zarembski said.” Other part is a heavy-duty education problem.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.