Fatal train crash near Plant City highlights dangers of private, unguarded crossings across US
Authorities say a Cadillac Escalade driven by 52-year-old Jose G. Hernandez was hit by a CSX train on Saturday night at a crossing near Plant City. Five others died and one person remains hospitalized in critical condition.
The weekend crash between a train and an SUV that killed six people in Florida happened at a private road crossing where little more than a sign or two is required — no crossing gates, no flashing lights, no warning sound.
The Federal Railroad Administration reports there are more than 80,000 such crossings in the U.S. and has recommended installation of uniform, easy-to-understand warning signs, though officials often have no jurisdiction over the private crossings. Over a 10-year period ending in 2017 there were 3,427 accidents at private crossings, about 14% of the national total during that span, according to the agency.
Another one happened Saturday night at a crossing near Plant City. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said that just before 7 p.m., a Cadillac Escalade driven by Jose G. Hernandez, 52, crossed the tracks into the path of a CSX train going 55 mph (88 kph).
Hernandez died Sunday at a hospital. Five others died at the scene: Enedelia Hernandez, 50; Anaelia Hernandez, 22; Jakub A. Lopez and Alyssa Hernandez, both 17; and Julian Hernandez, 9. Another passenger, 23-year-old Guillermo E. Gama III, is in critical condition at a local hospital.
Sheriff Chad Chronister said Monday that Gama is expected to survive.
“We are hopeful about this young man’s recovery and remain committed to not only the investigation but the healing of all those impacted," Chronister said in a news release.
“There are more distractions than ever for drivers and pedestrians, underscoring the need for people to always use caution around tracks and trains. We urge motorists to give their full attention when approaching railroad crossings and adhere to the posted traffic signs.”Statement from CSX
Authorities said all the victims were part of an extended family on their way to a birthday party at a house a short distance down the private road from the railroad crossing.
Chronister told reporters that video surveillance showed the Escalade slowly driving across the tracks but not stopping. He said the train conductor and another driver honked and flashed their lights to get the driver’s attention but the train was not able to stop.
No one was injured on the train. CSX said in a statement Monday that the company has been working to close more crossings to improve safety and that decisions on what type of warnings or signs should be installed are made by local authorities.
“There are more distractions than ever for drivers and pedestrians, underscoring the need for people to always use caution around tracks and trains. We urge motorists to give their full attention when approaching railroad crossings and adhere to the posted traffic signs,” CSX said.
Chronister said the vehicle flipped several times after impact and appeared like a “soft drink can that was smashed.”
“I think anyone who has seen the carnage that’s been created, whenever you compound that with children lost their lives here, maybe an entire family, maybe an entire family lost their life here tonight,” Chronister said.
According to a Federal Railroad Administration inventory of train crossings, the rail line near Plant City carries both freight and passenger trains: six trains during the day, six at night. It is not considered in a “quiet zone” that involves more regulation; the railroad has a maximum speed of 79 mph (127 kph).
The crossing has two stop signs and two “crossbuck” signs that are in an X shape with lettering that indicates a railroad crossing, according to an April inventory.
The railroad administration says that “engineering treatments or improvements (such as warning signs) are typically not elaborate" at private crossings. Almost all of them involve roads for farms, industrial locations or residential areas and the roads are either not open to the public or are not maintained by governments or other public authorities.
There are an average of 29 fatalities a year at private rail crossings, officials said. There are limits to government authority on private crossings.
“State and local authorities are often reluctant to exercise any jurisdiction over operations and safety at private crossings because they are private property," the railroad administration said in one report, adding that U.S. law prohibits “federal funding of private crossing safety improvements with a few exceptions.” States have varying laws on the issue.
The agency in 2019 recommended that where signs are installed at private rail crossings that they adhere to a uniform series that drivers can easily comprehend.