The dangers of ungated railroads

Video: Aja Phillips
Story: Julia Adkins

Ungated Railroads from Aja Phillips on Vimeo.

Throughout the entire Portage County, there are multiple railroad crossings that people travel and cross on a daily basis. However, not all crossings are made equal. Some have gates and warning lights, while some only have warning lights. But some have no warning lights and no gates at all.

According to the Ohio Revised Code 4955.33, the only warnings that railroad companies are required to put up before a public crossing are crossbucks “to give notice of the proximity of the railroad and warn persons to be on the lookout for the locomotive.”

Even though the law states that public railroad crossings only need to have crossbuck signs, many in Portage County have either warning lights, gates or both. The purpose of these warnings is to make sure that those crossing the tracks are safe and that those in the locomotive are safe.

Ohio state law requires that “any person driving a vehicle or trackless trolley approaches a railroad grade crossing, the person shall stop within fifty feet, but not less than fifteen feet from the nearest rail of the railroad…” for a wide list of occurrences and warning systems at the crossing, including “a clearly visible electric or mechanical signal device gives a warning of the immediate approach of a train,” “ a crossing gate is lowered” and “an approaching train is emitting an audible signal or plainly visible and is in hazardous proximity to the crossing.”

The law also says that if someone drives a “vehicle through, around or under any crossing gate or barrier at a railroad crossing while the gate or barrier is closed or being opened or closed.” Violating Ohio Revised Code 4511.62 can result in a misdemeanor of the fourth degree.

Jim Dipaola of Ravenna Township
Jim Dipaola, Zoning Inspector of Ravenna Township


However, no matter how many warning signs are at a railroad crossing, said Ravenna Township Zoning Director Jim Dipaola and former Operation Life Saver member, they are very dangerous. The safest crossing warnings and gates, according to Dipaola, is one that has four gates, two on each side that block traffic from coming around any of the gates.

Jim Dipaola on his work with Railroad safety.

As a former member of Operation Life Safer, Dipaola participated in their statewide, non-profit public awareness and education program that is focused on ending “tragic collisions, fatalities, and injuries at a highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad property.” During his time spent with the organization, Dipaola gave many presentations and helped to educate others about railroad crossings. He also spent five years teaching railroad safety to firefighters.

At one time, Dipaola was even given the opportunity to ride in the front of a locomotive train. During his ride, he learned more about how it is for the conductors inside the train. At one point, he even witnessed a gasoline truck go around the crossing gates that had lowered as the train he was in was approaching the crossing. “It was a scary moment,” said Dipaola.

The dangers of railroad crossings are not only for those in vehicles crossing the tracks, but also for the conductor of the train. “It takes a conductor one and a half to two miles to stop once they hit the breaks,” said Dipaola. By the time a train conductor would see you, he would not have enough time to stop.

The main problem that Dipaola said with the state law in Ohio in regards to railroad crossings is that it only regulates public railroads. There are multiple railroads across Portage County that are considered private crossings. This is because they do not cross a public road but instead cross a drive way or a private drive that leads to multiple houses.

Photo of a train on the crossing after the fatal accident of Sierra Thornton. Photo courtesy of WKYC-TV.
Photo of a train on the crossing after the fatal accident of Sierra Thornton.
Photo courtesy of WKYC-TV.

One of these private railroad crossings that is ungated and without warning lights in Portage was the scene of a fatal accident in 2013 on October 6. In Ravenna Township, Sierra Thornton and her family were travelling over a private railroad crossing from their home when the train struck their vehicle.

Thornton, 15 years old, was driving with her father and four younger sisters, ages ranging from 7 and 15, when authorities said they believed that Sierra had panicked and could not get out of the way in time of the train. Thornton had died at the scene while her younger sisters and father were all injured.

After the incident, Ravenna Township Trustees had sent a letter to owners of the railroad tracks, Norfolk Southern Railroad, that ran across the private drive and asked them to look into putting in warning lights or gates at the crossing.

However, the township still has yet to hear from Norfolk Southern Railroad about the incident and their letter.

“They never responded or sent anything back,” said Ravenna Township Trustee Pat Artz.

65-year-old Sandra Alger, who lived by The North Southern train.
65-year-old Sandra Alger, who lived by The North Southern train.


Ravenna resident Sandra Alger said she had lived across the same tracks of Thornton’s incident for most of her life.

“I grew up with the trains,” said Alger. “When I lived there, I always had to stop my car before crossing, roll down my windows and turn my music off, and always look both ways.”

Sandra Alger on living across a railroad crossing for most of her life.

Alger said that one thing we all have to keep in mind when crossing railroad tracks, gated and ungated, is to remember that we are not invincible despite what we all think.

The best way to cross a public railroad crossing is to pay attention to all the warning signs, lights and gates. Dipaola also said that when it comes to the mechanical gates and lights, everyone should double check as machinery is not perfect and could at some point fail.