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How Safe Are RR Crossings?

Tuesday's fatal school bus collision with a 33-car freight train in Tennga, Ga., has put the spotlight back on the issue of train-crossing safety.

Last year, there were more than 3,400 collisions, in which nearly 400 people were killed and 1,360 people were injured.

Of the estimated 160,000 highway rail crossings in this country, 96,000 lack gates and lights -including the one in Tennga.

Two children were killed and five others injured when a school bus collided with a train in Tennga, on the Georgia-Tennessee border, Tuesday. The bus driver also was injured.

"It's very disturbing in this day and age with the technology we have that we have any crossing in America that a school bus crosses that doesn't have gates and lights," Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board told Bryant Gumbel, The Early Show anchor.

Hall said the NTSB has sent seven investigators and one family assistance worker to Tennessee to assist the families and to begin the investigation.

Authorities recovered a videotape from a camera mounted inside the bus as well as a black box aboard the 33-car freight train, but the NTSB says it could be months before all the clues are pieced together and a final report is issued.

"We need to find out much more about the investigation before we can be putting out any factual information," Hall said.

Neighbors call this a dangerous railroad crossing - one of countless one-lane crossings in rural Georgia without railroad lights or gates. They say thick pine trees and a sharp curve make this a particularly dangerous intersection.

Townspeople say there have been several near-collisions at this crossing in the past.

Two years ago, the NTSB did a full study on passive crossings in the United States and sent copies to the states - including Tennessee and Georgia - and to the major railroads, including CSX. It listed recommendations for making grade crossings safer.

One of the recommendations involved sight distance, Hall said, pointing out that a previous fatal train-crossing crash in Tennessee's Polk County - where Monday's crash occurred - involved poor sight distance.

"I don't know whether that's going to be the circumstance with this particular crossing," he said, "but I'm going to go and personally look at that later today."

About 150 cars pass the crossing daily, and 13 trains pass the intersection at about 60 mph, said Luanne Grandinetti, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Of the 3,424 railroad crossings in the state, 61 percent are "passive," meaning there is a warning sign, but no lights or gate. Electronic warning systems are only required at crossing where more than 100 cars cross each day, where there is regular school bus and train traffic and where a fatal accident has happened.

Hall said the safety of grade crossings is ultimately the responsibility of the state.

"We need to ave more leadership at the state government level to identify the crossings, take responsibility for these grade crossings.," Hall said. "These are their residents, their kids." States that need funding can work with the federal government and the railroads, he said.

According to the federal government, the average cost of adding lights and gates to a crossing, last calculated in 1995, was $150,000 or about $14 billion to upgrade the 96,759 passive crossings on public roads in the U.S.

This would reduce, but not eliminate, the number of fatalities, the NTSB reports. To eliminate fatalities would require construction of bridges or overpasses at a cost of $3 million per crossing.

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