HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Tracy Miller has no intention of staying quiet when her voice could save a life.
“Somebody’s gonna get killed,” said Miller, who contacted Target 8 about a US-31 rail crossing she says is in dangerously poor condition.
“They’re gonna have a railroad tie come flying through their windshield,” Miller told Target 8. “I think that’s a very dangerous spot. It’s not being properly maintained.”
Miller’s car was damaged when a wooden plank broke loose from the CSX crossing, which intersects US-31 between 24th and 32nd streets in Holland.
She’s just grateful the length of wood that parallels the rails flew under her car instead of into it.
“Had (the plank) been hit just right, it could have popped up and gone through a windshield, and then it’d be a whole different conversation,” she said.
When Target 8 checked the crossing three days after the incident, pavement adjacent to the tracks was eroded and the wood planks still appeared worn and damaged.
PASSENGER: ‘HUGE PIECE OF WOOD’ HURTLED TOWARD CAR
Miller had loaned her Honda Civic to her boyfriend and was not in the vehicle when the incident happened around 7:30 p.m. on March 15.
Jeff Boss, a friend of Miller’s boyfriend, was a passenger in the car as it approached the crossing on southbound US-31.
“As we’re coming up on the tracks, there was a full-size van in front of us,” recalled Boss. “From what it looked like to us, it bounced. The van came down on the railroad tie, and the railroad tie popped up from his back wheel.
“From the rear axle of the van, it popped up right across our path so we hit it with both tires, square on. … It was a huge piece of wood. It was all the way across the car and then some. … Probably 8 feet long,” Boss said. “We were right on top of it right then and there. So, there was no reacting to it.”
Fortunately, the Civic made it up and over the piece of wood, which CSX refers to as a “crossing timber,” not a railroad tie.
“Luckily, we were just headed down the street,” explained Boss. “So we made it to where we were going, and when we stopped, there was all this oil coming out from under the car.”
The crossing timber had punctured the oil pan and damaged the skid shield, leaving the car undriveable.
CSX TOLD TO FIX CROSSING 3 WEEKS BEFORE INCIDENT
Miller is determined to hold CSX accountable, especially after Target 8 discovered the railroad company knew that crossing needed repair.
“When there’s a safety issue, don’t wait for someone to get hurt,” Miller said. “How many chances do you get, really?”
It appears CSX has had at least a couple chances.
On Feb. 24, nearly three weeks before the US-31 track broke apart and damaged Miller’s Civic, the state issued a notice of maintenance deficiencies to CSX, ordering the company to take corrective action.
“Remove broken/worn timbers and repair to create a smooth crossing surface,” Michigan Department of Transportation Inspector James Goff wrote about the US-31 crossing.
CSX: TRACK SUPERVISOR TO LOOK FOR TEMPORARY FIX
A CSX representative confirmed to Target 8 the company received the deficiency notice.
However, Sheriee Bowman of CSX said it was not aware of the incident involving Miller’s car until Target 8 reached out.
“Thank you for bringing that to our attention,” Bowman wrote in an email to Target 8. “CSX works hard to address crossing concerns in a timely manner. Our maintenance crews completed temporary repairs on the US-31 grade crossing this winter and … will continue to monitor the crossing until a more substantial fix can be completed.”
Bowman wrote more thorough fixes will likely come sometime in April.
“Many factors affect the pace and scheduling of crossing repairs, including weather, equipment and resource availability,” Bowman wrote. “We will have our track supervisor take a look at the crossing timbers and determine what can be done now until a more substantial repair can be completed when resources are available.”
MDOT identified problems at the crossing during a routine inspection on Feb. 17 and issued the notice to CSX on Feb. 24. Miller’s car was damaged on March 15.
Target 8 discovered yet another driver had reported a problem on Feb. 10.
“(Driver) was southbound in right lane when he hit a loose railroad tie causing his front passenger tire to flatten,” a Holland Department of Public Safety wrote officer in a traffic crash report. “(Driver) also said the car started making noise so unknown if additional damage.”
MDOT: FREEZE-THAW IMPACTING RR CROSSINGS STATEWIDE
John Richard, a spokesperson for MDOT, explained that while CSX is responsible for maintaining the crossing, MDOT conducts weekly inspections, compiles deficiencies and sends notices to rail companies once a week.
In an email exchange with Target 8, Richard wrote the notification to CSX “went out appropriately in the next batch run.”
“Of course, if it’s urgent, the (railroad) is notified immediately,” Richard wrote.
Target 8 asked Richard at what point MDOT would shut down a road due to crossing instability.
“If there’s an issue, we will close the road,” he wrote. “US-31 remains open without incident.”
Richard noted there’ve been several freeze-thaw cycles since the Feb. 17 inspection.
“This time of year, things happen fast. … We are seeing statewide evidence of potholes and loose (railroad) crossing material that were NOT observed in Jan.-Feb. inspections,” wrote Richard, who added MDOT sends out approximately 60 to 100 notices per week regarding the state’s 4,600 rail crossings.
Once MDOT issues a corrective action notice, CSX has 180 days — six months — to make the repairs.
“Once the railroad is put on notice of needed repairs it will take time for them to assess the crossing and determine the scope and cost of the work before they can schedule repairs,” Richard wrote.
“Because this is a Trunkline crossing, closing the crossing for repairs may in itself be a complicated and time-consuming process,” he continued, adding that if CSX cannot remove or replaced the affected timber panels, a full rebuild can easily cost $200,000 to $250,000 with a two-week closure.
HOW TO SUBMIT CLAIMS, REPORT PROBLEMS
Tracy Miller’s repair shop estimated it will cost her $927 to fix the damage to her beloved Honda Civic.
“My insurance probably won’t cover it because my deductible is a thousand dollars,” Miller explained. “But I will definitely pursue (a reimbursement claim) with CSX.”
But Miller is more concerned about safety.
“I want the people of Holland to slow down at the crossing, be aware of it, take your time, but I also want to get the word out to the parties involved that they need to really look into that,” she said.
CSX sent Target 8 a link for submitting property damage claims, which it says are “fully investigated.”
CSX also told Target 8 it “encourages members of the community to contact it with non-emergency crossing issues at www.csx.com/tellcsx so (it) can address their concerns in a timely manner.”
If you think a railroad crossing is unsafe, contact the governmental entity responsible for the road, which may be a county road commission, MDOT or the city in which the road is located.