Tennessee Railroad Crossings Pose Greater Danger to Drivers, Audit Critical of TDOT Says

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Tennessee Department of Transportation officials did not properly handle complaints about faulty railroad crossings, and that could pose a threat to drivers’ lives, according to an audit Tennessee Comptrollers released this week.

Auditors called upon members of the Tennessee General Assembly to get involved if matters do not improve.

From 2015 through 2019, more than 143 railroad crossings’ surfaces in Tennessee were in poor condition, the audit said.

“If the crossing surface is in poor condition, the driver(s) attention may be devoted to choosing the smoothest path over the crossing,” Comptrollers wrote in their audit, quoting the Work Procedures Manual for TDOT’s Office of Rail Safety and Inspection.

“This effort may well reduce the attention given to the observance of the warning devices or the primary hazard of the crossing; which is the approaching train.”

TDOT officials, Comptrollers went on to say, did not track when people complained about railroad crossings in need of repair nor did they have a formal process to document complaints. TDOT officials also did not require that railroad companies notify the department after they made repairs.

“Based on our discussions with the Office of Rail Safety and Inspection’s Railroad Inspection Manager and the department’s Assistant General Counsel, they believe that another limitation to ensuring the railroad companies repair railroad crossing surfaces is the fine amounts authorized by statute,” Comptrollers wrote.

“Specifically, the Railroad Inspection Manager noted that the fines are ineffective in motivating the railroad companies to make repairs to the surface area of railroad crossings. Furthermore, staff within the Legal Division stated that, at the current amounts, it was cost-prohibitive for the department to pursue noncompliant railroad companies; therefore, the department has not issued penalties for several years.”

TDOT officials do not provide the railroad companies clear expectations for how soon repairs should occur. TDOT officials also do not require that railroad companies report back to the office once they complete repairs, according to the audit.

“As a result, the office must rely on inspectors to return to the site every 30 days to reinspect the railroad crossing surfaces to check the status of repairs,” Comptrollers wrote.

“Without notifications about repairs from the railroad companies, the office is ineffectively using its inspectors to inspect unrepaired crossings.”

Auditors said TDOT officials “should work with the General Assembly to explore other alternatives to encourage railroad companies’ compliance if the current penalties are not effective to ensure railroad companies promptly repair railroad crossing surfaces.”

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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Gates Rail Road Crossing” by Brian Stansberry. CC BY 4.0.



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