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High Court Joins Rail Crossing Debate

Many relatives of victims of rail-car collisions are frustrated because they've been banned from suing railroads for erecting inadequate warnings at crossings, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato.

Joined by the Clinton administration, a Tennessee woman is taking on one of the nation's largest railroads in a lightning-rod safety case. Dedra Shanklin's husband was killed by a train at a crossing that had no lights or gates. Norfolk Southern railroad claims it's not liable for damages because the crossing was installed using federal money. The Justice Department disagrees, saying railroads remain responsible for ensuring that adequate warnings are erected at crossings.

"With over 400 people a year dying in car-train collisions, it's an unseen epidemic," Larry Waldron, whose 20-year-old daughter was killed at a brush-obscured railroad crossing in Virginia, told CBS Radio News.

Naturally, he's closely watching the Supreme Court arguments Wednesday.

Rail companies claim they are protected when crossing devices are paid for with federal money.

"Railroads have been let off the hook for far too long and it's time they accepted responsibility for the safety of their crossings," replies Sherry Fox of the safety group RailWatch.

The railroads worry the court will expose them to new, costly damage suits.

"The time has come for them to be responsible for their safety records," said Vicki Rogers, who lost her 16-year-old daughter in an Ohio accident.

"It's their trains, it's their tracks, it's their profits and it should be their responsibility," added Fox.

Most rail crossings in this country have no gates or bells. Each year, rail crossing accidents kill more than 400 Americans, and injure some 1300 others.

By Barry Bagnato
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