BY TABITHA REEVES
In the early hours of April 23, the lives of two university students were permanently altered when a train collided with their car. Both were rushed to the hospital with serious injuries, and only one of the young men survived the accident. What may initially seem like a rare one-time occurrence could be the result of a much more pressing issue regarding the safety of the Newark railroad crossing where New London Road meets West Main Street.
Not more than two months earlier, at the same intersection, another vehicle had been caught on the tracks, resulting in a collision. The number of potential fatalities that have occurred at that railroad crossing, in particular, is noteworthy. Its close proximity to the university also raises concern, as many university buses and students drive across those tracks.
Thomas Coleman, Newark’s city manager, and Tim Filasky, the director of Public Works in Newark, have been making efforts to improve the safety of the West Main crossing since as early as 2015.
“This railroad crossing has had a crash history going back a long time,” Coleman said. “We do see some issues at our other crossings, but they’re not anywhere close to the issues we see here.”
Despite this, it is not easy to make rapid changes to railway crossings. Coleman explained that they, working with the railroad company CSX Transportation, have faced hurdles in their attempts to make improvements.
“The most challenging thing that we faced with these railroad crossings is that CSX railroad has to approve anything and everything that happens,” Coleman said. “The long-term structural fixes would be the ones where we need CSX approval.”
Coleman went on to explain some of the safety-enhancing projects they would like to complete. One of these projects involves putting cross arms, perpendicular to the ones that currently exist, to surround the tracks. This would prevent vehicles from turning onto the railway and getting stuck.
Filasky, working alongside CSX, explained the prospective timeline for their upcoming project: road striping and more signage.
“We have to make sure that everybody is trained properly and has the proper credentials, but we’re probably looking at about two weeks,” Filasky said. “That’s the shortest fix that we think will have a pretty high impact.”
Valentina White, a first year medical diagnostics major, suggested a similar structural change: more space in between the crossing gates and the tracks themselves.
“That way, if a car were to get caught, it would have still space between the tracks and the crossing gates to go,” White said.
In the short-term, there has been work done on the road leading up to and around the intersection. The city has put in plastic bollard posts along the road, along with roadway markings and additional signage. Filasky explained that they also hope to put in lighting around the junction, to help with dark spots.
University students have expressed concern, considering that multiple accidents have happened just off campus. Students frequently walk and drive on New London Road and West Main Street.
“People don’t pay attention, or if they’re going to be late to class, they still cross [the tracks], even when the railings are going down,” first year mechanical engineering major Jillian Hoeler said.
White pointed out the dangers of the heavy foot-traffic of intoxicated students on weekend nights.
“They tend to not pay attention to the train tracks or the signs in front of them,” White said. “They don’t actually get that a train can come at any time.”
The Newark Police Department works alongside other departments in Newark to ameliorate dangers, such as the West Main railroad crossing. They publicly advocate for change, as well as reporting patterns of accidents to City Management.
Lieutenant Chris Jones from the Newark Police Department commented on how crucial it is to be aware of your surroundings when crossing train tracks, especially in light of recent accidents.
“Train crossings are dangerous,” Jones said. “Pay attention to the street signs, the crossing and the pedestrian crossing signs that are out there. A huge step is just paying attention to the safety mechanisms and signs that we do have in place.”