JUNCTION DYSFUNCTION: Trailers continue getting stuck at county RR crossing

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A flatbed trailer being hauled by a truck was struck by a train on CR 400W just north of SR 67 in Hancock County in October 2022. It was one of 11 semitractor-trailers to get stuck on the railroad crossing in just over two years.

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HANCOCK COUNTY – Already this year, three semitractor-trailers have gotten stuck on the railroad tracks that cross CR 400W just north of Ind. 67.

That makes for a total of 15 vehicles stuck on the tracks since 2021, 11 of which were semis. Of the 15 vehicles – five were struck by trains.

The tracks are higher than the road at the crossing, and the pavement climbs steeply to meet them. As long trailers make their way over, it’s not uncommon for them to become high-centered – stranded with their wheels off the ground.

The growing trend is increasing officials’ concerns and prompting them to consider solutions. Efforts are underway to add warning signs in the area and change navigation applications to direct semi drivers elsewhere. But leaders acknowledge the problem will never fully be resolved without improving the grade at the crossing, and when and how that occurs remains uncertain.

 

According to data compiled by Capt. Robert Harris, public information officer for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, three semis got stuck on the tracks in 2021 and five in 2022 on top of the three so far this year.

If 2023 continues at that rate, it would project a total of 24 for the year.

“I believe this may be accurate if nothing changes because there is more semi traffic attempting to use GPS to navigate county roads that are not meant for those trucks,” Harris told the Daily Reporter in an email.

Vernon Township Fire Chief Mark Elder recalled his department responding to three incidents at the crossing in the last several months. Two involved semis – one that caught fire while the other had a fuel leak and required cargo cleanup. The third, he continued, involved a passenger car that stopped on the tracks with vehicles in front and behind.

Officials’ concerns over the crossing come at a time when rail safety is in the national spotlight after a fiery train derailment spilled contaminated waste in East Palestine, Ohio in February.

Vernon Township Trustee Florence May voiced her concerns about the Hancock County crossing at a recent McCordsville Town Council meeting.

“I think everybody would recognize the biggest potential issue there is – it is tragic, of course, if anybody gets hurt – but the major concern is those trains carry hazmat, and the potential for something very, very serious for the entire area is the biggest concern that we have,” May said.

Gary Pool, Hancock County engineer, noted at a recent Hancock County Commissioners meeting that the crossing does not fall within county jurisdiction. He said CSX Transportation right-of-way spans to the north, Indiana Department of Transportation right-of-way spans to the south, and McCordsville controls most of CR 400W in the area.

“Hancock County has almost no jurisdiction here,” Pool said. “However, it’s a dangerous situation, so I could care less about jurisdiction.”

Signs stand on both sides of CR 400W at CR 1000N warning semi drivers of low ground clearance at the tracks to the south. Pool said he has spoken with McCordsville and Fishers – whose corporate limits span north of CR 1000N – about three more warning signs. One is slated for Fishers’ Cyntheanne Road (Hancock County Road North 400W), while two are planned on Hancock County Road 1000N. The signs will read, “DANGER NO SEMI SOUTHBOUND 400W.”

“I don’t normally do this,” Pool said. “And I never use the word ‘danger,’ however in this case I think ‘danger’ is a good term.”

He referred to sign washout, in which too many signs cause drivers to actually not pay attention to them.

“I don’t put up signs unless I really think they’re needed,” he said. “In this case I really think they’re needed.”

Pool is optimistic the extra signs will help reduce the amount of semis getting stuck, but acknowledged there is little a truck driver can do if they don’t see the signs. When heading south on that part of CR 400W, there is nowhere to turn or turn around to avoid the tracks.

“Once they make that southbound turn, I don’t think there’s anything you can do to convince them to back up at that point,” Pool said. “They’re just on their own.”

He expects the signs to arrive in the next week or so.

“Obviously closing the road would be a terrible idea, because it would just transfer that traffic to other places, where they would get hung up,” Pool said, adding nearby CR 500W’s turns would likely prove more problematic for semis.

Pool said he’s also working with INDOT and wants to see about the department and CSX allowing the county highway department to improve the vertical alignment of the crossing.

“I don’t know if we can really get much done on the INDOT side, because those tracks are very high and the road’s low,” he said.

He also said INDOT has a project planned for the road intersection at Ind. 67 and CR 400W that he hopes can have a positive impact on the nearby tracks as well.

“I’m hoping to convince them to raise the elevation of 67 in that location, and that will help remove the crown going over that railroad tracks and help reduce the amount of impingements we have on those railroad tracks,” he said.

CSX told the Daily Reporter in an email that safety is the company’s highest priority.

“CSX oversees the maintenance of railroad crossings on our network, however, state and local road authorities are responsible for maintaining roadway approaches at each public crossing location, not the railroad,” the company said. “We urge motorists to give their full attention when approaching railroad crossings and adhere to the posted low ground clearance warning signs. It is critical that drivers ensure their vehicles can safely and sufficiently clear the highway profile conditions before proceeding across the crossing.”

INDOT did not return requests for comment.

County officials are not certain what is prompting semi drivers to head south on CR 400W in that area, but guess it might be navigation applications.

“I wouldn’t choose to go that way, but they’re choosing to go that way,” Pool said.

The trucks that have gotten stuck don’t all appear to belong to the same company, he continued.

“It seems like a wide variety,” he said. “Everything from car haulers, to box trucks, to equipment.”

John Jokantas, Hancock County 911 director, said at the county commissioners meeting that his department’s public information officer, Greg Duda, has a contact with the mobile GPS navigation app Waze, which shares data with Google, and that the parties may be able to include something in the navigation apps warning semi drivers not to head south on CR 400W.

“With what Gary’s doing, with what Greg is trying to do, we’re hoping to try to help that issue out,” Jokantas said. “…We don’t want everybody not to be able to go down there, we just don’t want semis to go down there.”

CR 400W/SR 67 incidents

Jan. 1, 2021-Feb. 15, 2023

Semi stuck on tracks: 11

Vehicles stuck on tracks: 4

Property damage crash (no train or tracks involved): 6

Personal injury crash (no train or tracks involved): 4

Crash on tracks (not stuck): 2

Total: 27

Source: Hancock County Sheriff’s Department

CR 400W/SR 67 stuck semis

Semi stuck on tracks 2021: 3

Semi stuck on tracks 2022: 5

Semi stuck on tracks 2023 YTD: 3

Semi stuck on tracks 2023 projected at current rate: 24

Source: Hancock County Sheriff’s Department

From Jan. 1, 2021 through Feb. 15, 2023, there have been a total of six crashes on the railroad tracks crossing CR 400W just north of SR 67, five of which involved trains.

March 19, 2021 — Car stuck on tracks, train crashed into it, no injuries because driver was out

May 20, 2021 — Car bottomed out crossing tracks, damaged car, no injuries, no train was involved

Sept. 21, 2021 — Car stuck on tracks, train crashed into it, no injuries because driver was out

Oct. 12, 2022 — Car stopped between gate arms, train crashed into it, minor injuries, driver was out of the car but was struck by her own vehicle after the train struck it

Oct. 27, 2022 — Semi stuck on tracks, train crashed into it, no injuries because driver was out

Feb. 10, 2023 — Semi stuck on tracks, train crashed into it, no injuries because driver was out

Source: Hancock County Sheriff’s Department