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I-Team: Thousands of Texas train crossings remain gateless despite collisions

I-Team: Thousands of Texas train crossings remain gateless despite collisions
I-Team: Thousands of Texas train crossings remain gateless despite collisions 07:47

DALLAS - Nearly 2,000 drivers are hit by a train every year in the U.S. While several factors contribute to these collisions, including driver error, crossing gates play a crucial role in preventing accidents.

However, a CBS News Texas I-Team investigation found that these safety gates are missing from more than 3,000 train crossings across Texas, including at crossings with a long history of collisions. Even after fatal crashes, the I-Team found it can take years for gates to be installed at a crossing—if they are installed at all.

When Eva Lee sees a car drive down Cream Level Road in Athens, Texas, she said she has a flashback to her near-fatal encounter with a train twelve years ago.

"I went across the tracks that day like I normally do, and I heard a 'woosh,' and then it (the train) hit me," Lee said. "I broke like 14 or 15 ribs and punctured my lung. I still have a lot of nerve damage from it."

Fast forward seven years to 2019 at the same Athens crossing, a train smashed into a school bus, killing 13-year-old Christopher Bonilla. Shortly after that deadly collision, TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams told the I-Team the state was working to improve safety at the Athens crossing. However, a railroad and a yield sign remain the only safety features at the crossing. Last year, two more vehicles were hit by trains there.

Deadly train collision in Athens, Texas in 2019.

Williams said that after the deadly school bus crash, TxDOT proposed closing Cream Level Road, effectively eliminating the train crossing altogether. However, last fall, the city of Athens, which owns the road, said closing it would cause other traffic hazards and thus rejected this proposal.

TxDOT is now moving forward with a plan to add lights and a gate, with installation expected to begin later this year. 

"We want to see these projects move faster, but we've got a really significant need when it comes to highway safety all across the state," explained Williams.

Christopher Bonilla, 13, was killed in a 2019 train collision with a school bus in Athens, Texas.

Statewide, there are more than 3,000 gateless train crossings. TxDOT estimates that it would cost more than $1 billion to install gates and lights at every one of them. At the current funding level, that would take nearly 200 years. In the past five years, TxDOT has installed gates at 21 crossings.

"We certainly would like to see more investment take place in that, and thanks to some of the additional funding that we have seen, we expect to have about 35 gates installed over the next two years," Williams said. "But we also have to look at the bigger context, the bigger picture."

That bigger picture, according to Williams, is the fact that there are more than 4,000 fatalities on Texas roads every year, and on average, less than 20 occur at train crossings. Therefore, safety projects need to be prioritized.

However, the I-Team found that even at crossings where drivers have been killed, it is not unusual for it to take years for gates to be installed. For instance:

  • Carroll Bryant was killed at a crossing in Johnson County and it took six years before gates were installed.
  • In Godley, after Don Baber was killed by a train, it took eight years for the gates to be added.
  • Many other crossings still have no gates despite a history of collisions.

In 2017, Sean Baugh was driving home from work at night on Cedar Springs Road in Dallas near Love Field when he was hit by a slow-moving train.

 "I thought, 'Well, this is how I am going to die. I am going to die by being crushed in-between two trains,'" he recalled.

Baugh walked away with no major injuries, but he remains concerned about the safety of the gateless train crossing.

"It's going to happen again. I emailed the city (Dallas) to let them know about it, and I said, 'I was lucky, but somebody at some point is not going to be lucky,'" he said.

In July, Jonathan Frank Harris became the 11th driver since 2012 to collide with a train at this Dallas crossing and the first to be killed. After Harris' death, warning lights were installed at the crossing, but gates were not.

Jonathan Frank Harris was killed in a 2023 train collision in Dallas.

The original safety plans for the Cedar Springs Rd. crossing included gates, but TxDOT stated that an on-site survey revealed there was not enough room in the railroad right-of-way to install both gates and flashing lights. TxDOT said it collaborated with the City of Dallas and Dallas, Garland & Northeastern Railroad (DGNO) on the decision.

"Gates have benefits, but they aren't the cure-all. They are not the end-all," Williams said. "There's a motorist responsibility as well that comes into all of these. But gates are important safety features, and we want to see those continue to be installed as quickly as we can."

According to TxDOT, it costs an average of $300,000 to install gates at a crossing.

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