What to do about rail bridge crashes? No easy answers

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@aimmediamidwest.com

This truck hit the South Main Street railway overpass the evening of Monday, Sept. 18.

This truck hit the South Main Street railway overpass the evening of Monday, Sept. 18.

Photo courtesy of Jim Bulloch

If you hear a crash and the screech of metal downtown, it just might be another truck stuck under a railway bridge.

It’s a sound that’s become all too familiar to Jim Bulloch, who has lived near the South Main Street railway underpass for 25 years.

“Some of them hit hard enough they shake the house,” he said.

Bulloch recalls sitting on his porch one day when a truck hit the bridge so hard it tore the vehicle’s roof off. The truck kept rolling, dragging the ragged metal behind, and was finally stopped near Pyle-South Amherst Road.

So far in 2017, tall trucks have smacked into or gotten caught under the city’s rail bridges at least six times, according to Amherst police Sgt. Mike Murphy.

”There could be more where the truck hits (a bridge), backs up, and drives away and no one would be the wiser,” he said.

Such crashes have become something of a recurring joke among local Facebook users, who have debated for months whether the bridges are too low or drivers are at fault. Measurements have shown that signs accurately warn drivers of the bridge heights.

“There’s been trucks getting stuck under there since the 1950s,” said Amherst fire chief Jim Wilhelm, who estimates at least one a month.

Firefighters don’t respond to such crashes unless it causes a gas leak or other hazardous materials spill.

“If you’re driving a semi and it smacks into a little bridge, I’d say it’s driver error more than anything else, even if there are signs posted all around,” Wilhelm said. ”If you’re driving a rig, you’d better know how tall it is and what you can fit under and what you can’t.”

But it seems drivers don’t know, because the hits keep on coming.

There was one the evening of Sept. 18 at the South Main Street underpass, begging the question: What can be done to prevent more crashes?

A popular idea is to have city workers paint the bridges — which is simply not possible.

The bridges are the property of the Norfolk & Southern Railroad and Amherst workers can’t legally paint them without permission.

“I contact the railroad on a monthly basis just to ask if we can paint, and we still can’t get clearance to paint,” mayor Mark Costilow said.

He’s been asking for two straight years, asking the railroad to provide paint and offering for the city to provide the manpower. Costilow said he’s getting to the point where he’d offer to pay for the paint, too, which would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

If allowed, the mayor said he’d paint metal bridges in green with bright stripes that would be much more visible to drivers.

Height markings would be painted right on the bridges instead of nearby street signs.

Such a deal would be good for the railroad, Costilow argued. After each crash, Norfolk & Southern must send an inspector to assess the damage, which he said is quite expensive.

Crashes don’t cost the city anything except the manpower of deploying firefighters and police to the area.

Some downtown stop signs have flashing lights to alert drivers — would those help? Costilow said they might, but the devices are extremely expensive and taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear the burden.

What about painting the height markers on the roadway in front of the bridge? If drivers don’t see the signs, there’s no reason to believe they’d see the street markings, the mayor said.

To top it off, some GPS devices and software used by truckers warns of low bridges.

“I think saying ‘12 foot 7’ on a sign is what we can do,” said Costilow, citing the clearance height of the South Main Street overpass near city hall. “I think we’re meeting what we should be doing here in big black letters.”

“If someone is approaching a bridge and you’re a high vehicle, it seems to me you need to think twice before driving under it.”

Bulloch, who drove for UPS for 23 years, said he believes designating truck routes in Amherst or barring trucks from certain stretches of road would be the best solution — but even that requires a driver alert for signs.

“I know what the problem is. It isn’t the signs,” he said. “A better sign on the bridge itself might help, but these guys aren’t paying attention.”

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

This truck hit the South Main Street railway overpass the evening of Monday, Sept. 18.
https://www.theamherstnewstimes.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/43/2017/09/web1_crash.jpgThis truck hit the South Main Street railway overpass the evening of Monday, Sept. 18.

Photo courtesy of Jim Bulloch

By Jason Hawk