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After 64th truck collision, Tonawanda railroad bridge isn't stymied – but police are

After 64th truck collision, Tonawanda railroad bridge isn't stymied – but police are

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The bridge remains undefeated.

For the third time in a week – and at least the 64th time since 2000 – a truck has crashed into the Young Street CSX railroad bridge in the City of Tonawanda.

The solid steel bridge, built in 1918, shrugs off each impact. The trucks, however, usually end up looking like Godzilla stomped on their trailers.

Signs warn truck drivers of the bridge's height. The city in 2019 banned truck traffic on a section of Young Street leading to and from the bridge. And still the accidents keep happening.

Tonawanda Police Capt. Fred Foels, who has documented the crashes religiously over the past two decades, can't understand why wayward truck drivers keep plowing into the railroad bridge like an undersized NFL running back smashing into a 300-pound defensive tackle.

"It's a tough one to explain," Foels said Friday.

The most recent crash took place at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, when a 55-year-old truck driver named Gary Dixon, from Ontario, hit the bridge that crosses Young Street near Harriett Street in the city. The truck was carrying a load of pre-prepared, curry-flavored meals, Foels said.

It was the third crash at the bridge within a period of six days – after three such crashes in all of 2020, he said.

The first happened around 5:30 p.m. Jan. 20 when Brian D. Toomer, a 59-year-old Ohio man, hit the Young Street bridge with his tractor-trailer loaded with pallets of empty Crown Royal bottles that were on their way to a distillery. The crash split the trailer in half, Foels said.

The second occurred at about 4:20 a.m. Jan. 23 when David Omorojoe, 51, of Dallas, struck the CSX bridge and kept going before Tonawanda police stopped him on Delaware Street. His trailer was empty.

CSX Bridge Tonawanda Jan 23

This image shows a tractor trailer whose driver, a Dallas man, struck the CSX bridge on Young Street in the City of Tonawanda on Jan. 23 but continued until he was stopped by police on Delaware Street.

When officers asked him why he didn't stop after hitting the bridge, Foels said Omorojoe told them: “I thought I could make it to Niagara Falls.”

All three drivers were ticketed for driving on a route that isn't designated for trucks.

Foels started tracking the bridge collisions in 2000 and has pulled together a thick binder with details on each crash.

The Buffalo News has written frequent news items on the truck-bridge accidents with headlines such as "It happened again," "Not again" and "One more time."

Thankfully, despite extensive damage to the trailers, the crashes have caused few if any injuries to the drivers. And the 102-year-old bridge shows little ill effect from the incidents.

"You look at it, it's a battleship. It's solid, it's Bethlehem steel," Foels said. "These things were built to last. Rail was king."

Every time a crash occurs, Foels said, city police alert CSX, which sends out inspectors to examine the structure.

"The Young Street bridge has been inspected after each incident to ensure it remains 100% structurally sound and safe for train movements," Sheriee S. Bowman, a spokeswoman for CSX Transportation, said in an email.

Foels' experience with the bridge goes back to when he was a patrol officer.

He recalled one time when a driver involved in a crash at the bridge called his terminal manager to report the accident. The driver, while on the phone, handed it to Foels and said his boss wanted to talk to him.

The manager asked Foels to do him a favor: Tell the driver to clear any personal items out of the cab and ask him to hand the keys over to Foels.

LOCAL TONAWANDA BRIDGE

Tonawanda Police Capt. Frederic Foels stands with the CSX railway bridge on Young Street in Tonawanda in 2017.

And, Foels said, the manager asked him to tell the driver he's fired.

"I felt so sorry for the guy," Foels recalled. "They put it on me to be the heavy."

Foels said he believes the city has done everything it realistically can do to prevent the crashes.

There are numerous warning signs leading up to the bridge warning of its height of 11 feet, 6 inches. And the commercial GPS used by most truck drivers typically alerts them to low bridges and other issues.

Standard GPS does not do this, however, and Foels said some truck drivers have explained they were relying on a mapping service on their phones or they were following directions that didn't warn them about the bridge.

The truck drivers often are trying to take a shortcut from the 290 up to North Tonawanda or Niagara Falls, Foels said, or they are trying to avoid the tolls at the South Grand Island Bridge. As in the case of the three most recent drivers, they're nearly all from out of town, he said.

Foels also said he believes veteran truck drivers are retiring and being replaced by commercial drivers with less experience.

Foels and city officials have tried to think outside the bridge, so to speak, in coming up with ideas to curtail the crashes.

He said, given that a number of the truck drivers are from Canada, he asked the state transportation department if crews could post signs with the bridge's height in meters. But the DOT balked at this idea, citing potential confusion.

The city also has asked CSX, which owns the bridge, if it could put warning signs on the bridge itself.

"We've tried in the past and they want no part of it," Foels said.

Foels said he thinks CSX views this as opening a possible liability issue if, for example, it puts up a sign with flashing lights that malfunctions prior to the next truck crash.

It's not realistic for the city to lower Young Street underneath the bridge, or for CSX to raise the height of the bridge over the road, to create more space for trucks to pass beneath it, Foels said, given the costs and other technical challenges involved.

"CSX is committed to working with the City of Tonawanda to help ensure the safety of our employees and the public," Bowman said. "Raising the bridge would require a significant engineering project with impacts to numerous other bridges. Signage on the bridge would also restrict our ability to conduct visual inspections."

Mayor Rick Davis in March 2019, after another flurry of crashes, did issue an executive order shutting off a section of Young Street to truck traffic. Foels said he didn't know how many tickets officers have issued to drivers for being on Young without hitting the bridge.

"For the longest time, that seemed to work," Foels said. "It seemed like things calmed down."

There was just one more truck-bridge crash in 2019, Foels said, three in 2020 and three more just in January.

A team from the University at Buffalo School of Engineering reached out in summer 2019 to offer to study the situation and make recommendations. The members conducted an analysis and produced a thick report, Foels said, and he remembers one comment in particular that has stayed with him.

"At some point in time," Foels said, "the onus has to be on the driver."

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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