The Maitland Police Department is working to train more Central Floridians not to stop their cars on train tracks with increased traffic enforcement at the city’s railroad crossings throughout April.
The increased enforcement comes after the second SunRail-train-versus-car crash in a year’s time happened last week at one of the city’s rail crossings, this time at Horatio Avenue. According to police, a woman driving a silver Ford Freestyle attempted to drive around lowered rail-crossing barricades to beat an incoming SunRail train last Wednesday evening, only to make it halfway across before the train barreled into the back of her SUV leaving it a mangled mess of metal.
“When you try to race a train, the car always loses,” said Maitland Deputy Police Chief Bill McEachnie.
The woman was uninjured, and was issued a citation of $164 for driving around a railroad barricade, McEachnie said.
Maitland police officers will be staking out the city’s rail crossings, citing drivers who stop on the tracks or try to evade lowered railroad barricades now through April 30. In the first two days of patrolling, March 30 and 31, McEachnie said the department issued 27 citations – 21 for drivers stopping on the tracks, two for driving around the barriers, and the others for unrelated infractions.
“We’re really more concerned with people’s safety than the generation of tickets,” McEachnie said. “… We’ve already had two accidents, and we don’t want any more.”
The first SunRail crash in Maitland happened on the first day of paid SunRail service after the commuter rail system launched last May. According to police, on May 19 a 28-year-old woman stalled her two-door Infiniti on the train tracks at Packwood Avenue and fled the vehicle just before it was struck by a SunRail train moments later.
Maitland city officials have been mulling over how to make its railroad crossings safer for years, and residents and City Council members have both complained about traffic stacking up on Horatio Avenue leaving cars stranded on the tracks.
“It’s frightening … I’m sure there are other people like me, thinking they can make it through because traffic’s moving, but then it stops and you’re stuck,” said Maitland City Councilwoman Bev Reponen at a meeting last year. “It’s an unreal situation, and I’m afraid some people are going to sit there and panic.”
Since then the city has installed more signage urging drivers not to stop on the tracks, and tweaked the timing of surrounding traffic lights in an attempt to clear cars from stacking up on the rail crossings. Most recently, in February of this year, the city received $909,000 in grant money from the state to install quiet zones to the city’s rail crossings, which Maitland’s Public Works Director Rick Lemke said will help improve safety.
“If someone wants to get around the gates today, they can. Quiet zones prevent that,” Lemke told the City Council in February. “…It makes for a safer intersection.”
But it could be as long as three years until the quiet zones are made a reality, with the city still needing to figure out how to fund 51-percent of the cost of crossing upgrades.
Until then, the Maitland Police Department hopes that increased rail safety education and traffic enforcement will keep drivers from stopping their cars on the tracks.
The department’s No. 1 safety tip: “Trains and cars don't mix. Never race a train to the crossing — even if you tie, you lose.”