Safety improvements have been made at a dangerous railroad crossing in western Massachusetts. The family of a man killed at the site in 2017 gathered there today with government officials to celebrate the changes and honor his memory.
Since the 1980s, there have been nine vehicles struck by trains at the Birnie Road crossing in Longmeadow with five fatalities – making it one of the deadliest railroad crossings in the state.
Now, gates, flashing lights, and bells warn motorists when trains are approaching at high-speeds.
After Longmeadow DPW foreman Warren Cowles was killed when a northbound Amtrak train struck the snowplow he was driving in blizzard conditions on March 14, 2017, his sister Cindy Cowles rallied community support and knocked on the doors of elected officials to demand action.
" We did it," Cowles exclaimed at a ceremony where a ribbon was cut to mark the completion of the safety project. It was a bittersweat moment as she noted the crossing gates and warning signals were installed two years, eight months, and one day too late to save her brother's life.
Cowles praised reporting by The Republican newspaper that helped raise public awareness about the grim history of the railroad crossing.
"I wouldn't take no for an answer or accept that the government moves too slow," said Cowles.
Democratic U.S. Senator Ed Markey put pressure on Amtrak. At a confirmation hearing for a member of Amtrak’s board of governors in 2017, Markey inquired about what was being done about the crossing and declared the five deaths were “five too many.”
Standing at the crossing as a train approached Friday, Markey said the safety enhancements were long overdue.
"As this train comes through at nearly 90 miles an hour, unlike the past it will not be possible for a vehicle to get in the way and for a family to have to suffer what happened to the Cowles family," said Markey.
There are two sets of tracks at the Birnie Road crossing that carry high-speed passenger trains on the Hartford Line.
Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow said work to address the dangers at the crossing lagged for years because of jurisdictional questions.
"You have a town road intersecting a rail that is partly owned by the state and partly by the federal government," explained Lesser, who said the fact the project got done is a tribute to the local community and the Cowles family "who would not let the issue rest."
MassDOT paid $700,000, which was about 90 percent of the project’s cost and Amtrak picked up the balance.