Patience is running thin ov​er rail crossing safety

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As the one-year anniversary of the death of a woman at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway crossing at McCarver Street nears, city officials are expressing frustration about the lack of progress to make the crossing safety.

“We aren’t even asking them for money, we just want access to fix something that they should have done,” said Tacoma City Councilmember Robert Thoms. “We are going on a year now.”

The city hopes to install a safety fence at the crossing, which is a popular walking route for people looking to stroll to the waterfront.

That’s what Alexandria Lewis was doing last November when she was hit by a passing Amtrak train. Cale Tyler was hit by another train at the same location just a year prior. His death prompted calls for safety features. Lewis’ death a year later turned those calls to shouts.

Yet nothing has happened.

And even the temporary safety improvements the city wanted to install for Freedom Fair earlier this month hit a snag at the last minute.

Tacoma Public Works installed temporary mesh fencing commonly found at construction sites for the July 4th celebration along the waterfront in an effort to funnel pedestrians to the McCarver Street crossing and discourage short cuts across the tracks. The fencing was installed on both sides of the BNSF-owned tracks between McCarver and North 32nd Streets. But city crews had wanted to install chain-link fencing instead but were not granted permission from the railroad to install the fence on its property.

“Unfortunately, the efforts fell apart on the final days leading to the event,” Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver stated in a memo to the City Council.

The city had hired a fencing contractor to install chain link fencing with embedded posts during the week of prior to the July 4 celebration. Coordination meetings were scheduled then rescheduled only to be cancelled.  BNSF first confirmed that one of its safety flaggers would be on the site to allow the contractors to install the fence only to later say one had even been scheduled. Talks ensued with the conclusion that the work could be done as long as the contractor erected a “worker barrier” at least eight feet from the nearest rail. The BNSF roadmaster and the contractor agreed that an orange safety line would meet that requirement.

Work started.

“Later that morning, a different BNSF representative indicated that the safety line was not deemed adequate, and BNSF insisted on a barrier fence…” according to the Kingsolver’s recap.

Work stopped. Crews then simply installed the mesh, construction fence on city property in time for the flood of thousands of people coming to the area for Independence Day.

The railroad tracks are under a change of their own since the tracks will no longer be used by Amtrak trains, which are moving the tracks it will share with Sounder trains along South Tacoma Way. The move will allow the waterfront tracks to be used only for cargo trains.

Both Lewis and Tyler had been hit by passing passenger trains because they reportedly walked onto the tracks immediately after a cargo train passed only to be hit by faster Amtrak trains coming from the other direction.

Ultimately, Tacoma wants signals and pedestrian gates at the crossing and has set aside $250,000 for the work. Another $250,000 would similarly improve a crossing at Titlow Park.

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