Widely used but little acknowledged, the railroad crossing at Hollins Ferry Road just outside the Baltimore Beltway in Halethorpe is an accident waiting to happen, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
It almost claimed Colleen Zaccagnino and her 3-year-old twins last September.
"It wasn't making a sound," the Linthicum resident said, recalling the freight train that suddenly loomed in the window of her Honda Pilot as she crossed the tracks. "There was no warning. ... No safety bar. I was on the tracks and it was right there. I floored it."
Zaccagnino beat the train. But her close call illustrates the dangers at hundreds of Maryland rail crossings that do not have gates — including some that have only a stop sign.
Last week, at one of these ungated crossings in Rosedale, a trash truck driven by John Alban Jr. was hit by a CSX freight train, causing a derailment and a fiery explosion, with black smoke that was visible for miles. His injuries required hospital treatment.
Of the 631 public grade crossings statewide, only 20 percent are gated, according to FRA records. Most of the ungated crossings use flashing lights or bells to signal an oncoming train, though about 80 crossings have only a sign to warn drivers, like an x-shaped crossbuck or stop sign.
The Rosedale crossing, on a road that leads to a clearing in the woods that Alban uses for his trucking company, ranks 16th in the state for likelihood of a collision, with a 4.2 percent chance that one will occur any given year, according to federal records. The Halethorpe crossing is No. 19, at 3 percent.
There were 52 accidents — four of them fatal — at public and private railroad crossings in Maryland between 2010 and 2012, making the state one of the safest, according to federal statistics.
To calculate the likelihood of a collision, the FRA uses a formula that takes into account factors such as the number of daily trains passing, the history of collisions, and the type and number of safety devices in place.
The most potentially dangerous crossing in the state, with a 28 percent chance of a collision in a year, is on Randolph Road in Rockville. Three accidents were reported there last year, though no one was injured. The list also includes another crossing on Hollins Ferry Road in Baltimore and one on Joppa Road in Harford County.
The scene of Tuesday's collision was just beyond Rosedale Industrial Park, near the intersection of Lake Drive and 68th Street off Pulaski Highway.
That railroad crossing was assigned two different identifier numbers — one calling it a private crossing, one a public crossing — according to Robert Herstein, who oversees the railroad crossing inventory for the Maryland State Highway Administration. It was marked only with crossbucks and a stop sign.
About 23 trains pass through daily, typically at speeds between 45 mph and 50 mph, according to federal records. Only one other collision was reported at that crossing, in 1988. In that case, a truck failed to stop and struck a train; the driver was uninjured.
State law gives trains the right-of-way at a crossing. It is the responsibility of a vehicle driver to stop and look before continuing on.
But drivers take chances.
At the Halethorpe crossing Friday morning, about a half-dozen trucks carrying hazardous materials placards and marked "This vehicle stops at all railroad crossings" barely touched their brakes, even though state law requires a full stop. Four of seven Baltimore County school buses slowed but did not stop at the crossing.
"That should not happen," said Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles Herndon. "We're alarmed that any of our buses are doing it, especially in light of what happened the last several days."
The county requires school bus drivers approaching a crossing to activate the hazard lights about 100 feet before stopping, come to a complete stop 15 feet to 50 feet before the first track, open the service door and the driver's window, and look and listen in both directions. The rules apply whether there are children on the bus or not.
"We encourage people who see a violation to take down the bus number and call us," Herndon said.
Two Maryland Transit Administration buses also cruised through the Halethorpe crossing, which is marked with overhead flashing lights.
"Operators are trained to stop, open their bus doors, look and listen before proceeding through a grade crossing. Failure to follow the safety procedure is a six-point violation that results in a written warning and appropriate training. Any employee who accumulates 24 points is terminated," said MTA spokesman Terry Owens.
Train crossings are not a significant part of driver training discussions, even though the penalties for disobeying crossing laws can be severe, said Craig Talbott, vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association Inc. In Maryland, if a driver receives a ticket for illegally crossing a railroad track, the driver's commercial license may be revoked for 60 days, he said.
If drivers' reactions aren't uniform, neither are the safety measures in place to protect them.
The SHA receives about $2.3 million a year from the Federal Highway Administration for rail crossing improvements at state roads. The agency works with the owner of the tracks on design and engineering aspects of each project and provides the funding, said SHA spokesman David Buck.
"It's up to the owner to deliver the project," Buck said.
Eight crossing improvement projects totaling $3 million have been scheduled for the next fiscal year.
The Halethorpe crossing, which runs through an industrial park and past CSX Corp.'s Baltimore headquarters, carries a heavy mix of traffic — nearly 7,000 vehicles daily — of tractor-trailers, FedEx delivery trucks, buses and cars.
Federal records show an average of 55 trains, traveling at speeds up to 50 mph, use the crossing daily. But locals scoff at that reported volume.
"Hardly any at all," said Fred Harris, a retired truck driver who was getting a cup of coffee and an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich at Bakery Express adjacent to the crossing. "It's dead quiet."
Zaccagnino, 35, who grew up in Arbutus and uses Hollins Ferry Road daily to run errands and visit her parents, agreed.
"It was very odd. I never remember seeing a train there. I asked my mother and she doesn't remember seeing trains, either," she said.
People who live or work near railroad crossings often become crash victims because they grow accustomed to the intersection's normal operations, said Russ Quimby, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator who is now a railroad safety consultant in Omaha, Neb.
"Generally, the people who have them nearby and cross every day, they get used to not seeing trains go by," so the vehicle driver's mind is often elsewhere and not focused on whether a train is coming, Quimby said. When it comes to the cause behind these crashes, he said, "it's mostly mental."
Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun