Trouble on the tracks: Crash survivor warns of dangerous crossing near Richville, Minn.
For years, Earl Gordon has been concerned about the train crossing south of his seasonal home on Lake Marion.
Having to drive over the tracks every day, he's become acutely aware of the reduced visibility to the west, and said train whistles aren't always blown. With no lights or crossing arms, Gordon said it can be a scary place.
His concerns went to the next level on June 26, when his granddaughter and 2-year-old great-granddaughter were struck by a train at the crossing while on their way for a visit.
Ashley Gordon and her daughter, Lily Hovland, survived to tell the story. Ashley, who has crossed that track many times before, said she never heard a whistle before being hit.
"I stopped, looked twice," she said, "I had the windows rolled up, but the radio was off. I didn't hear anything."
It was too late. Ashley's 1998 Dodge Ram truck was hit by the train as she tried to go in reverse, sending the vehicle rolling into a ditch, where she and her daughter landed upside down. Neither one sustained serious injuries.
Earl said he and others can't recall hearing the whistle that day, which he said would be loud enough to make an impact.
"Nobody heard the train," he said.
Attempts to contact lake residents near the crossing were not successful.
Train conductors are regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration to sound their whistle four times before a train approaches a crossing, until the train is occupying the intersection.
The Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office is conducting an investigation into the incident and has requested the train's black box and locomotive camera, which will indicate the speed of the train and whether the whistle was blown. At the time this paper went to press, the black box and locomotive camera had not been handed over for the investigation.
Canadian Pacific Spokesperson Mike LoVecchio said until the investigation is complete, the railroad company will not comment on allegations that the whistle did not sound. He also said that tracking down the black box and locomotive camera can take time, as trains travel throughout the country.
"We cooperate fully on these investigations, but a locomotive moves around North America - it's not stationary," he said.
Ashley said she has complained for years that visibility to the west of the tracks is limited. With trees and brush growing around the track's curve, she said it's no surprise she didn't see the train coming.
Earl wasn't too shocked, either.
"If that train is doing 50 mph and comes around that bend with no whistle blowing, it would be on you before you knew what happened," he said.
According to the LoVecchio, the speed limit on the track through Richville is 40 mph. LoVecchio could not comment on visibility at the South Marion Drive crossing, but said Canadian Pacific does have an active vegetation management program, which welcomes comments and concerns from citizens.
While there are rules and regulations regarding visibility at crossings, they are determined by a number of factors, including speed of the train and whether the crossing has arms or lights, among other factors. Final regulations are determined by the Federal Railroad Administration. LoVecchio did not know off hand what the regulations were for the South Marion crossing.
Earl said he's made complaints about visibility at the crossing for years, even before it was a Canadian Pacific Line.
"If a normal citizen were to make a call to the railroad, it's of no value whatsoever," he said.
Until Earl sees visibility cleared or warning lights erected, he said he'll cross the tracks with fear, as will Ashley.
"It's a miracle we're even alive," Ashley said.