Westbury crash, New Hyde Park Road incident renew safety talks

Jed Hendrixson
Three people were killed in a fatal crash before this LIRR train derailed and collided with the Westbury train station platform. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
Three people were killed in a fatal crash before this LIRR train derailed and collided with the Westbury train station platform two weeks ago. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

Two weeks ago, an SUV was crushed by two oncoming Long Island Rail Road trains as it swerved around lowered crossbars at a grade-crossing in Westbury, killing three people.

Since then talks of safety concerns at grade crossings, the LIRR’s third track expansion project and tragedies of transit past have been revived.

In an unrelated incident at the New Hyde Park Road grade-crossing last Thursday afternoon, a box truck crashed through a downed gate, according to MTA officials. ABC7 reported that the truck was stopped in the crossing when the gates began to come down, signaling an oncoming train and that the box truck sped and crashed through the gate.

No injuries were reported, according to the MTA.

The LIRR put a slow-speed order in place at the crossing following the reports of the broken gate and the restriction was lifted an hour and a half later.

The New Hyde Park Road crossing is one of busiest of all 296 crossings in the LIRR system in terms of total vehicles and trains that pass through it, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said. 

The MTA police recently increased its presence at the crossing, Donovan said.

The crossing is nearly identical to the one at School Street in Westbury, where three men in an SUV that swerved around a lowered gate were killed Feb. 26, struck by two oncoming LIRR trains from opposite directions.

Authorities revealed the identities of two of the three men last Thursday. Miguel Angel Jimenez Luna, 36, and Saul Martinez Caravantes, 28, were both Westbury residents and all three were employees of a local supermarket.

The identity of the third man has not yet been disclosed, pending DNA confirmation, according to police.

They said the three men were involved in a minor car accident the evening of the crash and fled the scene, traveling south on School Street before swerving around the gate and being hit by a slow-moving eastbound train, followed by a westbound train traveling at full speed. The car was sandwiched between the two trains and caught fire, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said.

As part of the MTA and LIRR third track expansion project, seven grade crossings, including those at New Hyde Park Road and School Street, will be eliminated along 9.8 miles of track and replaced with underpasses. The project’s website cites safety risks posed to pedestrians, drivers and train riders as part of the reason for the work.

The crash has rekindled the memory of another LIRR crash at a grade crossing, which led to the construction of a similar underpass decades earlier.

On March 14, 1982, 10 people piled into a van after a party and were driving south on Herricks Road in Mineola. The driver drove around a down gate at the then Herricks Road grade crossing and was struck by an eastbound train.

Only one person survived, Kathleen Caemmerer of Williston Park, daughter of former Republican state Sen. John Caemmerer.

After the crash and the significant loss of life, that grade crossing was replaced with a four-lane-wide underpass road.

At a news conference Monday next to a grade crossing in Garden City, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) announced he plans to revive a federal railroad safety act that could allocate funding for track safety improvements to the LIRR.

The Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act, which Schumer originally co-sponsored in February 2015, could pass with relative ease in the Democratic majority House of Representatives later this year as part of a larger federal transportation bill, he said.

“When it comes to risky rail crossings, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Schumer said. “What I mean specifically is that if the federal government were to take their list of dangerous crossings and help create a process that can fund some much-needed improvements, we’d all be a lot safer.”

The list Schumer referred to comes from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Web Accident Prediction System, which ranks all of the LIRR’s grade-crossings from most to least likely to experience an incident based on historical data.

The Covert Avenue crossing in New Hyde Park, slated to be eliminated over the course of six months starting in April, places seventh on that list. The Willis Avenue crossing in Mineola comes in at 12th and the New Hyde Park Road crossing at 35th.

There are currently 296 grade crossings active in the LIRR system, according to Donovan.

Speakers at Schumer’s news conference said that although it may not be economically feasible to eliminate every grade crossing, improvements can still be made.

“It is important to appreciate that the LIRR Expansion program will not eliminate all LIRR grade crossings, which means the senator’s call for increased funding for these crossings that address critical safety issues, as well as reliability and efficiency, could very well save Long Island lives,” said Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island.

The LIRR has already begun safety procedures at grade-crossings, according to Donovan, and there are measurable results.

Improvements implemented include flexible delineators, or thin orange cone-like structures, as well as reflective pavement markings and white side striping, which have helped to improve safety at the crossings, Donovan said.

In 2018, seven incidents of pedestrians or drivers coming into contact with LIRR trains were reported, according to Donovan, down from 17 in 2017. The MTA also issued 1,200 summonses for grade-crossing related infractions in 2018, Donovan added.

Though the safety aspect of eliminating grade crossings along the main line is definitely a plus, transportation historian Larry Penner thinks more could be done to improve crossing safety.

The current gates are too flimsy, according to Penner, and there is a clear need for more warnings like road rumble strips for slowing down approaching vehicles, as well as additional signage and lighting.

“I have to believe that the technology is there,” Penner said. But, Penner added, entering a grade crossing despite down gates and flashing lights is still a matter of human nature.

“There is still only so much you can do,” Penner said.

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