JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The railroad crossing where a dump truck collided with an Amtrak train Monday in northwest Missouri was on a safety improvements list for Missouri’s transportation department.
Amtrak’s “Southwest Chief” travels from Los Angeles to Chicago. Before Monday’s collision, there have been six accidents on that Route in Missouri in the past five years that have injured two and killed another two, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). At the crossing where Monday’s crash occurred, there were no lights or signals to warn drivers.
“There’s a lot of crossings like that across rural Missouri where you just have to be able to cross the tracks,” Gov. Mike Parson said Tuesday afternoon. “I think the tragedy that happened yesterday was a terrible tragedy that happened for our state.”
The Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) said four people died and dozens were injured after an Amtrak train collided with a dump truck at a crossing near Mendon Monday afternoon. Three of the victims were passengers on the train. Two of those victims died at the site, one later died at a hospital. Monday is about 80 miles northwest of Columbia and roughly 100 miles northeast of Kansas City.
There were about 275 passengers, and 12 crew members aboard the train. Once it hit the dump truck, the train derailed, and the truck was left in pieces.
“We will take a look at that and evaluate, but if there are things we can do better, we want to do better,” Parson said. “Financially we should be able to make changes for safety and we will continue to do that.”
Earlier this year, MoDOT submitted its State Freight and Rail Plan to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) which included a list of improvements. On that list was a crossing where the crash happened, saying, “Installation of lights and gates and roadway improvements at public crossing.”
According to Missouri’s Highway-Rail Grade Crossing State Action Plan, there have been no accidents at this particular crossing near Mendon within the past five years, but the Show-Me State ranks 12th for the highest number of grade crossing incidents in the country. During the past five years of the 211 incidents, 37 were fatal.
“As far as financially being able to make improvements, we try and do that all the time,” Parson said. “I mean, that is available there, we’ll just have to see.”
MoDOT did not want to go on camera but said funding is an issue. A MoDOT spokesperson said it costs roughly $400,000 on average to upgrade a crossing, but the state only has about $7.5 million a year to spend on rail crossing improvements. That money comes from the 25-cent state motor vehicle licensing fee and is then matched by federal funds.
Out of the 6,564 highway-rail crossings in Missouri, about 3,500 of them don’t have warning lights or arms. That’s about half of all the crossings in the state. Those types of crossings that do not have warning signals are called “passive.” “Active crossings” have lights, horns, crossing arms, or other signals to alert drivers of a train.
MoDOT said they are not sure if money from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill could be used to increase safety for railroad crossings.
According to the FRA, trains must sound their horn at least 20 seconds before the train approaches the crossing of any public road and then must sound the horn as they are passing through the crossing.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy was in Mendon Tuesday and said they are still investigating if the engineer blew the horn, the speed of the train, and the brake application. Homendy said the speed limit through that crossing is 90 mph.
She said that for years NTSB has recommended actions of closing passive crossings or upgrading them.
MoDOT said the next step to improve the crossing in Chariton County is for the department to work with the county and BNSF Railway to find a solution and schedule and then hire a contractor.
Amtrak operates four different passenger routes through Missouri, the Missouri River runner from St. Louis to Kansas City; the Texas Eagle from San Antonio to Chicago; The Lincoln Service that runs between Chicago and St. Louis, and the Southwest Chief.