West Redding railroad crossing: Improvements in the works for a while

The status of a railroad crossing improvement plan for the West Redding/Long Ridge Road crossing is in the news after a car versus train accident there that left two people dead on Dec. 30, 2012.

At 1:20 p.m. that day, a southbound Metro-North train struck an automobile, a Subaru, on the tracks. Based on the MTA police’s preliminary investigation, the lights on the crossbucks at the crossing were flashing at the time of the incident, signaling the approach of a train. There are no crossing gates at that crossing.

Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders said the engineer reported the radio in the car was blasting. She said the train’s event recorder indicated the train was traveling at 50 mph, the speed limit at that section of the track.

A state Department of Transportation project “for specific safety improvements” at the West Redding/Long Ridge Road crossing is still in the design phase, emailed Judd Everhart, DOT spokesperson, on Monday.

Under the project, he said, new railroad vehicle gates will be installed at the railroad/highway at-grade crossing. The installation of the gates is just one of the improvements being performed under the project, he wrote.

To improve the transition over the crossing and to increase sight distance, the intersection of Long Ridge Road, Side Cut Road and Simpaug Turnpike will be reconstructed to form a “T” type intersection, Mr. Everhart said. The reconstruction will relocate the existing crossing approximately 25 feet to the east. The reconstruction is also slated to address drainage issues at the intersection.

Because of some environmental permit issues, construction is scheduled to begin in the fall 2014. Some preliminary work has already been done, said Mr. Everhart.

The plan was first unveiled at an information meeting in Redding in January 2004. At that time, it was indicated the state would oversee the grade improvement and the town would oversee the roadwork. The town chose the firm of Milone & MacBroom for the design work.

All the work will be paid for by a federally funded program administered by the state for at-grade crossings. The estimated cost of the project is $1.48 million.

Steve Curley, state DOT transportation engineer, is the project manager of the project. He said the state DOT might initiate a number of projects at once, but because of shifts in priorities, some may get “shuffled around” when there is a need elsewhere.

The ease of construction might also play a role, he said, pointing to the grade improvement, including gates, at the intersection of railroad tracks with Topstone Road. That project was completed in 2007. He noted that not every public at-grade crossing has gates, such as the crossings near the Branchville train station.

A number of issues arose once the West Redding crossing improvement project was initiated, including cost of options and negotiations of agreements with the consultant and the town. The actual design of the selected alternative didn’t start until March 2006, he said.

Among other things stalling the project was drainage work that required filling in some wetlands, and the fact that the area where the work is to be done is in a flood plain. Permits from both the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineer are required. Added to that is the need for historic and archaeological surveys (a historic hotel once stood near where the work is being done). These were not part of the original scope of the project and required more reviews and changes in scope. The scope was developed by Oct. 28, 2010. Then there were more reviews and agreements to be reached. This was accomplished by March 8, 2011.

At this point, said Mr. Curley, the consultant has submitted the draft application for flood management certification. The review was finished before the accident, he said. The application is now in the final stage of draft review and will then go back to the DEEP.

Mr. Curley said the fall 2014 date was the current schedule before the train incident. He added that money is available when the project is ready to go.

“We are working to bring to fruition an active project,” he said.

A separate Metro-North signalization upgrade project is also in the works for the Danbury branch line.

Marjorie Anders, the Metro-North spokesperson, said if the gates were put in now, they would not be compatible with the design of the signalization project. Metro-North’s design took into account the relocation of the signal 25 feet from the existing signal per the state improvement project. The way the road is now configured, gates could not be put in the current location without redesigning the signal system, she said.

Ms. Anders said the state of Connecticut decides when and at what level railroad crossings should be. The West Redding/Long Ridge Road project is a state highway project, she said, and when it is finished, Metro-North comes into the picture. The state is responsible for the cost of signal installation, but Metro-North designs and installs the signalization, she said.

Mr. Curley agreed the state determines what devices are needed at rail crossings in the state, for both public and private crossings.

State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26th District), who represents Redding, and Sen. Mike McLachlan (R- 24th District) have asked the DOT commissioner and Metro-North’s president for a meeting to ensure crossing improvements are forthcoming. Both are members of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee.

“We need a better history of this project,” said Ms. Boucher. She said the town would be included in meetings “so all are on the same page.”

First Selectman Natalie Ketcham has asked to be included in any meetings that relate to the West Redding rail crossing as well as the Metro-North signalization project.

Meanwhile, two of the passengers in the Dec. 30 accident remain in the hospital.

There was another accident involving a car and a train in July 2010. The Pilot reported that a car hit a northbound commuter train while trying to cross the tracks on Long Ridge Road. The driver of the car was unharmed, but two of the 15 train passengers complained about minor injuries and were taken to the hospital.

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