Snowy winters mean dangerous railroad crossings


— Take it slow over the train tracks.

Although that sounds like a common-sense statement, a review of vehicle-train collisions on Routt County railroad crossings throughout the past 30 years shows that most of the collisions occurred during winters such as this one, when snow or fog, darkness and freezing temperatures are prevalent.

According to Federal Rail--road Administration safety data, 33 of the 37 reported collisions on 10 Routt County crossings since 1975 occurred between November and March.

Vehicle damages at one crossing -- the private road entering the Fish Creek Mobile Home Park in Steamboat Springs -- total more than $30,000. Nine vehicle-train collisions have occurred at that intersection since 1975. Those collisions resulted in four injuries but no fatalities. That is the highest collision total for any crossing in Routt County. The second most collisions took place at the crossing at Routt County Road 14F and Colorado Highway 131, just off U.S. Highway 40. There have been seven accidents -- the most recent being in 1990 -- that resulted in four injuries.

Two of the collisions at the Fish Creek Mobile Home Park crossing occurred this winter.

On Dec. 22, a Union Pacific train collided with a truck driven by Anna Handcock, 23, of Steamboat Springs. Handcock told police she heard the train's whistle as she approached the tracks, but she said she could not see around a 3-foot snow bank and was inching forward when the train struck the front of her truck. She and her passenger, Robert Johnson, sustained minor injuries.

On Jan. 14, 29-year-old Buck Chavarria's Chevy pickup slid onto the same tracks. Chavarria said "a solid sheet of ice" caused his truck to slide. He said he jumped out just before an oncoming Union Pacific train knocked his truck into an embankment about 20 feet down the tracks.

The Fish Creek crossing, near the Kum & Go gas station off U.S. 40, also has been the site of vehicle-train collisions in the winters of 2002, 2000, 1996, 1991, 1987, 1984 and 1978. Although it is marked with stop signs and warning signs, there are no automatic gates or flashing lights to alert motorists when a train is approaching.

Fish Creek Mobile Home Park has 70 homes, all of which are occupied, park manager Tom Palmer said. Bob Enever, who owns the mobile-home park, maintains the crossing. Officials from Union Pacific Railroad, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the city of Steamboat Springs say that because the crossing is on private property, they are not responsible for maintaining or improving it.

"The railroad crossing is not in our jurisdiction because it's not on a state highway," said Nancy Shanks, a CDOT spokeswoman, adding that federal funding through CDOT to aid local railroad projects is tapped out for this year.

"That is a private road, so it is not a city-maintained road," said Jim Weber, director of public works for Steamboat Springs. "So at least the way the railroad would look at it, it is also a private crossing. We don't plow the street, we don't repair the street."

Enever said he contracts with Johnson Excavating to plow the crossing.

"We are most careful about making sure the stop signs are visible and maintained and that grit is on the road," Enever said Tuesday. "This is certainly something that has our attention -- we have quite a bit of traffic across there."

Enever said although he has no specific plans for upgrading the signs or adding lights, "there are some discussions going on" with numerous entities, including the city of Steamboat Springs.

"We are looking at some ideas," he said.

Caution is the best safety measure at any railroad crossing, especially in the winter, Palmer said.

"It's just like driving on side streets downtown," he said. "You have to be careful."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail


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