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Infrastructure Bill Has Funds For Rail Crossings Safety Work

U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Cindy Cowles at the railroad crossing in Longmeadow where Warren Cowles was killed in a collision in 2017. Safety improvements were made two years later.
Paul Tuthill
U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Cindy Cowles at the railroad crossing in Longmeadow where Warren Cowles was killed in a collision in 2017. Safety improvements were made two years later.

Bipartisan deal includes components of legislation filed by Sen Markey

A provision in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate this week was inspired in part by a tragedy at an unguarded railroad crossing in western Massachusetts.

The infrastructure bill includes $3 billion for a new railroad crossing safety program that according to the office of U.S. Senator Ed Markey mirrors the goals and incorporates language from the “Warren Cowles Grade Crossing Safety Act.”

The Massachusetts Democrat introduced the bill in 2020 as an outgrowth of his work to secure a funding plan to install gates, flashing lights, and bells at a railroad crossing in Longmeadow where in 2017 town DPW foreman Warren Cowles was killed when a northbound Amtrak train struck the snowplow he was driving in blizzard conditions.

Cindy Cowles said staffers from Markey’s office called to get her permission to name the legislation in honor of her brother.

“I was very happy and very honored that they even asked,” Cowles said in a telephone interview this week.

Because the railroad crossing safety funds are now part of the much larger infrastructure package, there will not be a separate bill named for Cowles.

“I guess at the end of the day the end result is still the same,” Cowles said. “As long as we can safe somebody else that is the important part of it.”

Since the 1980s, there had been nine collisions at the Birnie Road crossing in Longmeadow with five fatalities – making it one of the deadliest railroad crossings in the state. After her brother’s death, Cowles rallied community support, spoke up at public meetings, and knocked on the doors of elected officials to demand action.

“There is just no reason in this world my brother should have been killed at that site,” said Cowles. “There had just been too many accidents there to allow that to continue and that is what is upsetting the most that it took my brother’s life and me standing up and fighting for anything to be done.”

Markey is credited with helping to untangle jurisdictional disputes and for pressuring a top Amtrak official about the project during a Congressional hearing.

He joined the Cowles family in November 2019 for a ribbon-cutting at the Birnie Road crossing to mark the completion of the safety enhancements that he said were long overdue.

As a train roared through the now guarded crossing, Markey said the safety features are a tribute to the Cowles family that will “live forever as a protection for every other family.”

The project cost almost $776,000. The bulk was paid for by MassDOT from a pool of federal funds. Amtrak covered 10 percent.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration there are roughly 128,000 rail crossings nationwide and only about a third have flashing lights and gates.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.