West Monroe, a city of some fifteen thousand people, has seen an increase in the number of collisions between trains and cars over the last two years. One person has been killed and four injured in such accidents, three of which occurred in 2010 and two of which occurred at the Plum Street railroad crossing.
The City of West Monroe, the Department of Transportation and Development (DODT), and the Kansas City Southern Railroad Company are responsible for maintaining these railroad crossings. As a result of the increase in accidents, they have collectively decided to close two railroad crossings, at South Second and Plum Street. Although they initially planned to close the Trenton Street Underpass, the city decided to keep it open due to the inconvenience to traffic.
In addition to closing two intersections, the city and railroad company plan to upgrade all other railroad crossings within city limits. These upgrades will consist of adding new warning devices and cutting back any vegetation that might obscure drivers’ views. They might also involve lowering the speed of passing trains and increasing the trains’ use of their horns.
Municipalities and railroad companies have a duty to maintain safe railroad crossings based on the Federal Railroad Safety Act and supplementary state legislation. This duty applies equally to both the municipalities and railroad companies; a railroad intersection is as much a street as it is a railroad. As such, victims of accidents at railroad crossings may collect damages from both the municipality and the railroad company, the two of whom may sort things out between themselves after paying for the harm to the victim.
The importance of this duty, relative to the other duties which fall on municipalities and railroad companies, becomes readily apparent with a brief look at statistics. There are over two hundred thousand railroad crossings in this country, which cause over twelve thousand car accidents each year. Of these twelve thousand car accidents, more than fifteen hundred involve fatalities and more than seven thousand involve serious injuries.
Despite the dangers of railroad crossings, there is no hard and fast definition of what is and what is not a safe railroad crossing. Rather, the safety of a crossing, or the negligence of a municipality or railroad company, is determined by the circumstances of the particular crossing. For instance, no single train speed limit is per se negligent, unless an ordinance or statute makes it so. However, any such speed may be negligent if, under the circumstances, reasonable prudence calls for a slower speed. The same is true of vegetation obscuring the view of the tracks, the amount of traffic crossing the tracks, and the existence of warning signals. An area which is lightly traveled, by cars or by trains, requires fewer warning signals and allows more vegetation and train speed than an area which is heavily traveled.
A spike in the number of accidents, as has occurred in West Monroe, may be evidence that the railroad crossings have become unsafe because the circumstances under which they are used has changed. If West Monroe or the Kansas City Southern Railroad Company failed to remove vegetation over the last few years, resulting in an increasingly obscured view of oncoming trains, they may have turned an otherwise safe crossing into a liability. Likewise, if the city or railroad company failed to adjust train speed or failed to place more warning signs in response to an increase in traffic, they may have allowed a potentially safe crossing to become a liability.
The decision to upgrade the crossing does not, in itself, increase the municipality’s or the railroad company’s potential liability. Neither would deciding to upgrade an intersection and then failing to do so. This is because selecting a crossing for upgrade does not make drivers think that the particular crossing is safer than they otherwise would. Because plans to upgrade a railroad crossing do not create a perception of safety, they do not cause more drivers to use the crossing than otherwise would. As such, planned upgrades are not the proximate cause of accidents.
The City of West Monroe, DODT, and Kansas City Southern Railroad Company are liable for the state of their railroad intersections not because they have decided to upgrade them, but because they must upgrade them so urgently. Cities and railroad companies across Louisiana which maintain hazardous railroad crossings should learn from West Monroe. Public safety demands that they upgrade their facilities without the prompting of a spike in fatalities or a wrongful death lawsuit.