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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Train kills woman crossing tracks

A 19-year-old woman was killed late Sunday when the car she was driving was struck by a train at a downtown Rathdrum railroad crossing that is scheduled for safety improvements.

Amy Nadine Little drove across a street-level railroad crossing where the signal lights for an approaching train had been activated, according to the Idaho State Police. The 1999 Dodge Neon she was driving was struck on its driver’s side by an eastbound Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad locomotive just after 11 p.m. Sunday.

Little, of Rathdrum, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Mill Street crossing is one of two in Rathdrum, a town bisected by the BNSF’s main east-west transcontinental freight line. Freight trains travel through the city at 60 mph, state and railroad officials said. The train involved in Sunday’s collision was braking and was traveling an estimated 30 mph at impact, ISP Cpl. Charlie Greear said Monday.

Preliminary observations show the vehicle was largely intact, Greear said.

Also, “There is no acceleration scuff – indications she was trying to beat the train – and there are no skid marks to indicate she saw the train at the last minute,” Greear said.

Little was at a Christmas party earlier Sunday, but there was no indication she consumed any alcohol, Greear said.

The crossing is on the Idaho Transportation Department’s schedule to be equipped with crossing gates during fiscal year 2006, which runs from October 2005 through September 2006. It is also one of many crossings scheduled to be either closed or separated from the tracks by an overpass or underpass in the Bridging the Valley project. The goal of the ambitious project is to remove all grade-level crossings in the Spokane Valley and Rathdrum Prairie.

Rathdrum Mayor Brian Steele said Monday the city received a grant about two years ago to install gates at the crossing, but said the barrier arms created other safety issues and were not installed.

“The problem with that is ITD would not allow cars to turn left” from Mill Street north onto state Highway 53, the main drag through Rathdrum, Steele said. The mayor said state highway officials told the city there was not enough “storage room” between the tracks and the state highway, and cited concerns of vehicles stuck on the tracks if traffic was stacked up by left-turning cars.

A left-turn ban onto Highway 53 would impede Spokane-bound traffic, possibly sending it through nearby residential neighborhoods in search of a shortcut, so “the City Council didn’t think that was a feasible answer,” Steele said.

State highway officials reached Monday in Coeur d’Alene and Boise had no knowledge of traffic studies cited by Steele.

Joe Peagler, rail-highway safety coordinator for the ITD, said from Boise on Monday that the Mill Street crossing was placed on the short list for crossing gates in 2003. The massive Bridging the Valley project may not see federal funding for years, Peagler said, and Mill Street deserved more immediate attention, he said.

“I’ve got a folder on every crossing in the state. All 2,647 of them,” Peagler said, pulling his file on Mill Street.

The crossing already has upgraded circuitry, known as constant warning time, which not only detects motion on the tracks, but also estimates an approaching train’s speed to activate the signal lights at an appropriate time, Peagler said.

The barrier arms would be added as an additional safety step. Peagler said any traffic engineering considerations would not be addressed until the project received funding, which would be Oct. 1, 2005, at the earliest. Peagler was unaware of the grant Steele mentioned.

Both Peagler and a BNSF spokesman noted, however, that nearly half of all car-train accidents happen at railroad crossings protected by crossing gates.

A 60-mph limit for trains through town “is reasonable if people look and listen for the trains,” Peagler said. “If a train was going through town at 25 mph it would be blocking 2, 3, 4 crossings at the same time and you would get a lot more complaints about that train than about one going 60,” Peagler said.

Because the railroad crossing is one of only two in Rathdrum, the city is resistant to the idea of shutting it down, Steele said.