Feds: This Baton Rouge railroad crossing one of nation's most crash-prone _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Looking north, up N. Foster Drive, at railroad crossing on N. Foster Drive at Choctaw. The Federal Railroad Administration says this intersection has one of the highest number of incidents (crashes etc.) of any in the country in the last several years.

A railroad crossing on North Foster Drive in Baton Rouge is one of the most accident-prone crossings in the country, federal officials announced this week, with 13 crashes of trains hitting automobiles in the past decade.

The incidents rank as the eighth highest at a railroad crossing nationally since 2006, said the Federal Railroad Administration, which released a list last week of all 15 crossings with at least 10 incidents over that time period.

Unlike the other crossings on the list, no one has been injured or killed in those accidents, according to federal records, and state officials are quick to point out that the accident rate at the crossing dropped considerably following safety upgrades in 2012. No crashes have been reported since March 2014, when a freight train traveling 18 mph struck a pick-up truck stopped on the tracks.

Since 1979, five people have been injured in crashes at the location, though just one of those injuries came after 1982.

Four trains per day travel along the stretch of track — a Canadian National Railway single-track line running between Baton Rouge and Hammond that runs parallel with Choctaw — and top out at 20 miles per hour, said Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation and Development. Four lanes of North Foster run across the tracks at the crossing, right next to the intersection with Choctaw Drive.

“All or the vast majority of the accidents are people stopped on the tracks or trying to beat the train,” Mallett said. “People gamble and try to beat the train.”

During the 30 minutes a reporter for The Advocate spent watching the crossing, five drivers stopped with at least part of their vehicles over the tracks (although no trains passed through at the time). There’s only roughly one car-length of road between the railroad tracks and the intersection, which is busy and frequently congested.

Railroad reports detailing 43 accidents at the crossing dating back to 1979 — an average of more than one a year — indicate most or all of the accidents happened when vehicles either parked on the tracks while waiting for the stoplight at the intersection or failed to stop for the train.

In 2012, the city-parish upgraded the traffic signals so the lights would turn green as the train approaches, allowing vehicles stopped at the light to clear the tracks when a train is coming.

A $1 million federal grant announced in February is funding safety upgrades for a number of railroad crossings and closing others along a 6-mile stretch of Kansas City Southern track in Baton Rouge, but Mallett said no work is planned for this location.

Adding gates actually might make the crossing more dangerous, Mallett said, as studies have shown drivers often simply drive around the barriers and then wind up crashing with trains at more destructive angles.

“We need folks to quit trying to beat the trains,” Mallett said. “We’re trying to make people more aware to not stop on the tracks.”

Not appearing on the list of crash-prone crossings released by the Federal Railroad Administration is a crossing in Iberia Parish where five people were killed when an Amtrak train crashed into their car in December. The crossing hasn’t been the site of as many crashes.

The North Foster crossing is the only Louisiana crossing on the list.

At an auto parts store next to the Baton Rouge crossing, employees said rush hour at the intersection can be chaotic, with vehicles frequently stopped on the crossing.

Though Janie Williams started working at the store several months after the most recent accident, she said the configuration of the intersection and crossing struck her as unsafe.

“I don’t think there’s enough room,” Williams said.

Marquise Craig, 21, said he’s been living about a block away from the crossing for the past five years and recalled frequent accidents, including car-on-car crashes. But Craig said the North Foster crossing didn’t strike him as any worse than other intersections and railroad crossings in the neighborhood.

“It’s just like that all along this stretch (of Choctaw Drive) from Ardenwood to Plank Road,” Craig said.

Sarah Feinberg, of the Federal Railroad Administration, in a recent letter to state-level officials, urged states to take advantage of federal resources to address safety issues at grade crossings across the country.

Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for Canadian National, said the company agrees with federal officials that addressing safety issues at crossings is “a shared responsibility” between railroads and state and federal agencies.

“CN has and will continue to work closely with communities and local road authorities on grade crossing safety,” Waldron said.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.