Freight trains have killed three people at Hampstead railroad crossings on Route 30 in the past two years. The family of the latest victim hopes Virginia Schwartz will be the last.
The family filed an $11 million civil lawsuit Thursday in Baltimore County Circuit Court against CSX Transportation Inc., charging the railroad company with negligence in the Oct. 26 death of 75-year-old Virginia Schwartz of Owings Mills.
The family seeks $6 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, which could be awarded if a jury finds the railroad was grossly negligent. The family also wants the railroad to improve warning signals to better alert drivers to oncoming trains.
The suit was filed on behalf of the family by retired Carroll CircuitJudge Donald J. Gilmore, who stepped down from the bench last September after 13 years to open a private practice in Westminster.
For Gilmore, the case has become a bit of a crusade. When he retired fromthe bench, he said he wanted to express his opinion on some controversial issues. This is his first chance to do that.
"I see this as an issue of public safety," he said. "I think they are using horse-and-wagon standards out there and endangering the public."
That opinion is shared by Virginia Schwartz's husband, William, and their children.
Virginia Schwartz and her sister-in-law, Marguerite Joan Bosley, were headed south on Route 30 near the southernmost of two Hampstead railroad crossings around 4:50 p.m. on a clear fall day, police reports show.
The women had spent the day at the Hanover Mall in Hanover, Pa. The mother of seven and grandmother of 18 had taken Bosley, who was recuperating from surgery, out to lunch. They planned to stop at a farmers market to buy Halloween pumpkins on their way home.
When Schwartz failed to stop at the railroad crossing's flashing lights, the oncoming General Motors freight engine crushed her Oldsmobile, dragging the car and its two occupants some 200 feet down the tracks near the Black & Decker plant.
CSX officials said the flashing lights and train whistle were working at the time of the crash.
More than a half hour later, rescue workers freed Schwartz's body from under the train by cutting through the roof of her car.
Bosley was rescued in 15 minutes and was flown by state police helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Unit at University Hospital in Baltimore. Today, she is in a nursing home recuperating from her extensive injuries.
Since taking the case in January, Gilmore has been haunted by two questions: Why didn't Schwartz stop for the red flashing lights, and why didn't she see the train?
The suit claims that the 30- to 50-year-old "Winkomatic" flashing lights at the two Hampstead rail crossings are outdated and that CSX was "careless, reckless and negligent" in not maintaining the crossings properly.
CSX representativesdid not return phone calls last week.
The State Highway Administration, state and local police and Hampstead officials say heavy traffic on Route 30 increases the likelihood of accidents at the two crossings.
"That road used to be the farmers' connection to Baltimore, so they could bring their potato chips down," said Robert Herstein, chief of traffic programs for the Highway Administration. "Now that road is a major commuter route, which contributes to the rise in accidents."
According to the highway administration's Office of Traffic Inventory, traffic in the area of the crossings has increased from 9,000 cars a day in 1986 to 12,200 a day in 1989, the last year for which statistics are available.
From July 1984 to October 1990, 33 people were killed in accidents along the 20-mile stretch of Route 30 between Reisterstown and the Pennsylvania border.
While the accidents on Route 30 attract a lot of attention because they often involve multiple deaths, state police in Westminster say the road is not the most dangerous in Carroll.
First Sgt. Stephen Reynolds said Route 30 is ranked as the fifth-most dangerous road in number of total accidents. Route 140 topped the list in 1990, he said.
"(Route 30) is not that bad," Reynolds said. "It doesn't have many sharp curves. . .. The troopers tell us it's not that dangerous."
But for the people who live in the towns that Route 30 runs through, the road is treacherous -- and often the source of the screech of tortured metal. And, they say, the railroad tracks make it worse.
Hampstead Police Chief Kenneth Russell said that after Schwartz's death, he thought it was his responsibility to try to get the railroad company to put better signals at the crossings.
But instead of finding a solution, he found himself in the middle of two organizations seeming to pass the buck, Russell said.
"I went to CSX officials and asked about overhead lights, and they told me they could never afford to do that because they cost $110,000," he said. "They also told me it was the State Highway Administration's responsibility."
When Russell contacted SHA officials, they, too, told him the lights would cost too much.
"It really burned me when they said they couldn't afford it, because at least three people have died there," Russell said.
CSX officials continue to maintain it is not their responsibility to update the signals and refer all calls to the Highway Administration.
Hersteinsaid the SHA cannot upgrade the signals because agreements between CSX and its unionized workers guarantee them railroad maintenance jobs.
"If the railroad company has unions, it's their responsibility to maintain the signals," he said.
If CSX wanted to update the signals, the state would give the railroad permission to do work at the crossings, Herstein said.
But, he added, authorization of any changes at the crossing must come from the secretary of transportation.
He said additional signs alerting drivers to the crossings will be installed in the spring.
Herstein is one of a number of state and county officials who believe better signals will not improve the crossings.
"If you are a prudent driver, you are going to stop," he said. "If you're not, you're going to try to beat the train."