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Signaling intentions

TIFFIN— The mantra “stop, look and listen” we learned in grade school apparently is no longer enough.
In a push to increase safety at its railroad crossings, the Iowa Interstate railroad (IAIS) wants more of its grade crossings to be signalized.
One in particular is the uncompleted trail crossing next to the Jasper Avenue railroad crossing east of Tiffin. The road crossing has flashing lights, crossing gates and an electronic bell to warn motorists of approaching trains. The trail currently has round advance warning signs and the familiar crossbucks and stop signs. However, IAIS says that isn’t enough, and is insisting the city put in signals for the trail as well.
“The trail was designed using the protection specified by the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD),” City Engineer Doug Frederick explained. The city completed the trail on both sides of the tracks, stopping just short of the rails so the railroad could construct the actual crossing. When Frederick asked the railroad when they would be doing the work, he got a surprise.
“I was asked by the railroad representative when the city would be signalizing the trail crossing.” He said the city had placed signage, etc. as required by the MUTCD, and hadn’t planned on anything further at that point. “I was informed that for liability purposes, the railroad was requiring signalization for all crossings.”
Thomas Klemm, Engineer Public Works/Real Estate for the IAIS, said the proposed system would be separate signal masts for the trail. “Any new, at-grade crossing of a trail requires a signal system to be installed, to give the trail user active warning of an approaching train.” Klemm said. “This policy of installing signals at trails is to give the trail user the highest level of safety possible.”
The initial estimate for the project was $40,000. The final amount won’t be known until a contractor for the railroad designs the signal package, installs it and sends the bill to the railroad. Once IAIS has the bill, they will turn it over to the city for payment. Tiffin City councilman Chris Ball said at the April 11 council meeting the city had applied for a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) grant to cover at least some, if not all of the cost. The fate of the grant application won’t be known for several months.
Federal funds, administered through the Iowa Department of Transportation funded the road crossing signals. While the trail crossing was well into the planning stage, according to Klemm, restrictions on the use of the federal dollars prevented funding the additional signals for the trail, putting the city on the hook.
The IAIS’s safety concerns have some validity. According to the non-profit railroad safety education organization Operation Lifesaver, a pedestrian or vehicle is struck by a train about every three hours. One example hit close to Tiffin Monday, April 15, as a semi-tractor trailer was hit by a train a mile or so away from Jasper Avenue in Coralville.
“Railroads have been a part of many unfortunate incidences where pedestrians are completely unaware of approaching trains, with the situation aggravated with headphones. A signal system can help give warning in addition to the approaching train’s horn and lights,” Klemm said.
As for the crossing, Frederick said, “I believe the city is committed, one way or the other to get the crossing signalized and in place within this year.”