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NYS Senator Wants Coordinated Inspections Of Rail Crossing Traffic Signals

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WAMC, Allison Dunne
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After a commuter train hit an empty car at a rail crossing in Westchester County late last month, a state senator is calling for the coordinated inspection of traffic signals at such crossings.

A northbound Metro-North train clipped a car at the Green Lane crossing in Bedford and, while the occupants got out before the collision, New York state Senator Terrence Murphy says it could have been a disaster. The crossing is in Murphy’s district as is the Commerce Street Crossing in Valhalla where, in February 2015, a Metro-North commuter train crashed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks, killing five people on the train and the car's driver.

Murphy, a Republican, is sponsoring a bill requiring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and state Department of Transportation to conduct joint inspections of traffic signals at interconnected grade crossings. Murphy says, currently, the railroad inspects its portion of the system and the DOT inspects the state portion. However, Murphy points out, the majority of these signals are on the local system, and it is not known how often these interconnected signals are being inspected. His legislation would add a new section to the railroad law that would establish a required joint inspection by the DOT and MTA every two years. Democratic Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, whose district includes Valhalla, calls Murphy’s bill a good idea and says much needs to be addressed.

“We want to make sure that the signals are working. We want to make sure that the signals are clear to the drivers to warn them to stay away from the grade crossings,” says Abinanti. “And then we want to look at these railroad crossings from the point of view of if a driver gets stuck on one of these, what’s the option to the driver. How does the driver get the car and the passengers of the vehicle out of the way before the train comes by.”

An MTA spokesman, in an emailed statement, says that while the agency has not yet had a chance to review the proposed legislation, safety is the MTA’s top priority, particularly when it comes to railroad crossings. He says the MTA is open to listening to any ideas to improve safety at crossings. Gary Holmes is DOT spokesman.

“While we’ve not had a chance to review the proposed legislation, if it’s a conversation about safety, it’s one we’re interested in listening to proposals,” says Holmes.

Following the Bedford incident, Abinanti renewed a call for support of his bill that would direct the state DOT to conduct a statewide study of level grade rail crossings and to submit a report to the governor and the legislature by April 1, 2017.

“Grade level crossings are commonplace throughout New York state, far too commonplace. In some cases, we need to close the crossings. In other cases, we need to put overpasses and other passes. In other situations, we need to improve the railroad crossings,” says Abinanti. But we need the DOT to participate because we need to have it from the driver’s point of view. We don’t need it only from the railroad point of view, which is what you get when the MTA and other railroads do their study.”

The bill passed the Assembly in March. Murphy is a co-sponsor in the Senate, where the bill is sponsored by Independent Democrat David Carlucci. Robert Greenstein is town supervisor of New Castle in Westchester.

“There’s no doubt that these on-grade crossings are dangerous,” Greenstein says.

He welcomes any attempt to increase rail crossing safety, including Murphy’s legislation. New Castle has the Roaring Brook crossing in Chappaqua, which is in the Town of New Castle. Greenstein would like to see it eliminated and an overpass built instead.

“The one that’s by, on Roaring Brook Road, that’s less than half-a-mile from our high school and it’s also right near the Saw Mill Parkway where there’s a traffic light there as well,” says Greenstein. “So what happens is cars back up due to the traffic light that’s on the Saw Mill and there’s the chance that they could back up onto the railroad tracks. That has happened.”

Following the 2015 Valhalla tragedy, Murphy co-authored a bill calling for the installation of cameras at railroad crossings that would monitor crossing violations. Abinanti is the assembly sponsor.  

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