Derailments become matter of life and death

Published 8:55 pm Friday, August 29, 2008

BOYKINS—The 911 emergency recordings are chilling.

As a dispatcher at the Southampton Sheriff’s Office worked to alert railroad officials that they needed to move a train that was blocking the road in Branchville, one could hear the hysterical sobs of a woman on the dispatcher’s other line.

She was at her Pittman Road home on one side of the tracks with her mother, who was bleeding uncontrollably from a shunt. A Boykins rescue crew was stranded on the other side, waiting for the tracks to clear.

They waited there more than 18 minutes as the dispatcher tried one railroad contact number and then another to find someone who could order the conductor to move the train off the Route 186 crossing.

By the time an emergency medical technician had reached her from another direction, the woman was in a dire situation, and her daughter was frantic and inconsolable.

By the time the train moved and the crew crossed the tracks, there was little they could do. The woman died, essentially bleeding to death while she awaited medical help from just a couple of miles away.

Most of the time, when trains block the road at Route 186 or Route 35, they just create a nuisance.

The Pittman Road incident earlier this year, however, showed just how bad things can get and just how important it is for town, railroad and emergency officials to get together and find solutions to the problem.

Representatives of those started that process on Wednesday, gathering at the Boykins Fire house to talk things out and identify ways they could cooperate to reduce the potential dangers to the community from blocked railroad crossings.

Calling it a “grave issue of public safety,” Boykins Mayor Spier Edwards said, “The time for procrastination, excuses and empty promises has long since passed.

“The time for action, meaningful results and progress has arrived.”

Ironically, less than 24 hours prior to the meeting, Boykins and Branchville residents dealt with the effects of the second minor train derailment in less than a month.

As with a similar incident in July, Tuesday’s derailment blocked Route 186 for hours, leaving emergency services providers to come up with their own solutions for providing protection on both sides of the tracks.

That kind of situation gives Boykins Volunteer Fire Department Chief Danny Bolton nightmares.

“I have the safety of my public—my citizens—on my shoulders,” he told railroad officials Wednesday. “I think we could work together to solve some of these problems.”

Both of Boykins’ major thoroughfares are cut by railroad lines: A CSX Transportation line crosses Route 35 on the northern side of town, and a North Carolina-Virginia Railroad line crosses Route 186 in the west before curving around to join the CSX line.

Tuesday’s derailment was the fifth in the past seven years on one of those lines, Mayor Edwards said, and it has sometimes been hard to get conductors to cooperate by uncoupling and moving the unaffected cars off the road.

A similar problem arises when workers load or unload cars at the nearby Meherrin Chemical plant, Branchville Mayor Arthur B. Harris said. During those operations, trains often sit in one place for long periods.

Harris said he has advised citizens to call 911 if a stationary train blocks a crossing for more than five minutes.

Under Virginia law, railroad companies can be fined up to $500 for each incident in which one of their stationary trains blocks an intersection for longer than five minutes.

John R. Sherrill, a railroad safety inspector for the Virginia State Corporation Commission, urged those attending to work with his department if they continue to have problems with trains blocking crossings without moving.

“There are ways to eliminate the problem,” he said, and the SCC would be eager to help the towns do so.

David Farley, public affairs representative of CSX, said people also should look for placards near the crossings that containing railroad contact information, both for emergency situations and for those that do not require an immediate response.

“We don’t want to come into communities, block crossings and cause problems,” he said.

As for the repeated derailments, officials said there probably are a variety of causes.

Tuesday’s incident is under investigation by both the Southampton Sheriff’s Office and the CSX Police Department.

The SCC’s Sherrill said Thursday that officials believe someone threw a switch while the train was crossing it Tuesday, causing it to jump the tracks. John Herrin, a special agent for the railroad’s police department, declined on Friday to confirm the report.

“It’s still under investigation,” he said of the incident. “We do a very intense investigation. It’s a very complex situation.”