ATHENS, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – In January, Christopher Bonilla, 13, was one stop away from home in Athens when he was killed as a train collided with his school bus.
The crossing near Cream Level Road has no lights, stop signs, or a crossing gate. It only has a crossbuck and yield sign in each direction.
“Everyone has said they need bars (gates) down there,” said neighbor Tina Graham whose daughter had just gotten off the bus before the collision. “I’ve had plenty of close calls. Everyone has.”
According to federal records, on average eight trains pass through the Cream Level Road crossing every day traveling at 40 miles per hour, while nearly 3,000 vehicles drive daily over the crossing.
In 2010, at the same crossing, there was another collision when a train slammed into a pickup truck. The driver was injured but survived.
TxDOT Deputy Executive Director Marc Williams told the I-Team, “We are going to be looking very hard to see if we can make some improvements at that crossing when we go forward with this round of improvements.”
An I-Team investigation found more than 300 train crossings across North Texas don’t have a gate. At these crossings, in the past decade, trains have slammed into vehicles 65 times.
Seven drivers hit by trains at crossing near Love Field
On Cedar Springs Road just south of Love Field in Dallas, Sean Baugh was driving home from work when he was hit by a slow moving train and then pinned up against a second train.
“I thought at the moment this is how I am going to die,” Baugh said. “It was pitch black. It’s a very difficult train to see.”
Since 2012, seven drivers have been struck by a train at this Dallas crossing. All seven survived.
TxDOT said it is currently working with the City of Dallas on plans to install a gate at the crossing, although, no timetable has been set on when it will happen.
Baugh said, “I was lucky but somebody at some point in time is not going to be lucky and it not going to be able to walk away.”
Communities waiting for gates at crossings where drivers have been killed
Don Baber on his way to work at the Post Office when his pickup truck was hit by a train at a gate-less crossing in Godley in 2011.
Baber, known by friends as “Tall Don”, was in the hospital for 12 days before he died from his injuries.
Baber’s widow, Pat Garrett, said the installation of crossing gates are needed all across North Texas.
She told the I-Team it should not matter how much it costs “a person’s life can’t be replaced.”
Nearly eight years after Baber’s accident, a gate was installed at the crossing.
At other crossings where there have been fatal wrecks, there are still not gates.
At a gate-less crossing in Johnson County in 2010, Carroll Bryant, 59, was driving his pickup truck when he was struck and killed by a train.
Nine years later at the crossing, there is a cross with Bryant’s name but there is still no gate.
There is also no gate at a crossing near Greenville where, in 2015, Ladonna Sue Rigsby was killed.
BEHIND THE LENS
TxDOT says federal funds for safety improvements is not enough
While cities and counties can request crossing gates but, by in large, the decision on where gates are installed is made by TxDOT.
Every year, TxDOT does a risk assessment on all the state’s more than 9,000 train crossings.
Williams said his department works to identify the crossings that are at the greatest risk for an accident. Those crossings are then put in line to receive federal dollars for a gate or other safety improvements.
Last year, Texas received close to $20 million in federal funds but with more than 3,000 crossings in the state without a gate, that is not nearly enough money.
“We have to work with the resources we have available to try and make the best decisions and best investments possible to be effective as possible,” Williams told the I-Team.
TxDOT said it could make safety improvements to more train crossings every year if the federal government gave Texas its “fair” share of the highway funding.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, in fiscal year 2019 Texas will receive only 95 cents in transportation funding for every dollar Texans paid directly into the Highway Trust Fund. Texas is now the only “donor” state to the fund as the result of an outdated funding formula. It’s has been frozen since 2009.
In a letter to their fellow congressional lawmakers back in March, all 38 members of the Texas congressional delegation asked for disparate rate of return to be addressed.
Plans to install gates at downtown Waxahachie crossing not soon enough
In 2007, on Elm Street in downtown Waxahachie, Raul Martinez, 49, was killed when his car collided with a train.
The crossing had no gate.
Six years later, there was still no gate when nearly the same thing happened to sisters Morgan and Amberley Hunt – only they survived.
“To tell you the truth I thought we all were going to die,” Amberley Hunt said. “It was the worst day of my life.”
Morgan Hunt, who was in a coma for three days after the accident, said, “I kept thinking where were the arms? How did this happen? I can’t understand how did this happened.”
TxDOT said a bid will go out later this summer for a road improvement project for Elm Street. The project will include gates at this crossing.
But the Hunt sisters said gates should have been installed more than a decade ago.
“How many more lives have been affected by not having arms here,” Morgan said. “I don’t want another 18 year old to go through what I went through … or even worse someone to lose their life because nothing was done.”
Williams told the I-Team he understand the frustration.
“Is it fast enough? Certainly not for those families who have been affected,” he said. “Our goal is zero. We are working so no one has to lose a loved one.”
Williams said when formulating a risk assessment for train crossings several factors are taken into consideration including public input. If there is a train crossing you are concerned about, you can contact the TxDOT Transportation Committee:
Phone: (512) 305-9509
J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. – Chairman
Jeff Austin III – Commissioner
Alvin New – Commissioner
Laura Ryan – Commissioner