KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For more than two-and-a-half years, the Chariton County Commission has tried to get concerns about the safety of the Porche Prairie Avenue railroad crossing addressed, but BNSF and the Missouri Department of Transportation were largely unresponsive to those concerns.
An eastbound passenger train, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train No. 4 en route to Chicago, struck a dump truck at that crossing Monday near Mendon, Missouri, and derailed. Four people, the truck driver and three people aboard the train, are confirmed dead in the crash, which sent roughly half of the nearly 300 people aboard the train to hospitals across Missouri.
"It was a terrible tragedy," Chariton County Presiding Commissioner Evan Emmerich said Wednesday. "We wish things would’ve been done there, but we feel like we made the contact with the people that we needed to let them know that there were problems with it and they told us it was on their list to repair."
A Chariton County farmer, Mike Spencer, first brought concerns about the Porche Prairie Avenue crossing to the commission’s attention at a Dec. 2, 2019, meeting.
He said the approach to the crossing had become quite steep and needs to be addressed.
"It’s not a good crossing because it is a steep incline," Emmerich said. "It’s always been an issue there, a spot that people need to watch out for."
Spencer told the commission that he had been in contact with BNSF, but they “were not being very cooperative,” according to an email from Emmerich to KSHB 41 News.
The commission suggested Spencer reach out to MoDOT’s rail safety team.
One week later, the commission reported that MoDOT said it was aware of issues at the crossing and was making plans for repairs, including talking to landowners to get dirt to fix the approach to the crossing, at its Dec. 9, 2019, meeting.
The commission met with Spencer, representatives from MoDOT and an engineer from a local firm on March 3, 2021, to examine the Porche Prairie Avenue crossing, where approximately 58 trains — mostly freight trains — come through on a daily basis.
Again, it was noted that the approach to the crossing was steep and needed to be fixed.
The group also noted that the angle at which the gravel road intersects with the double set of train tracks also made lines of sight challenging, which is especially true for slower-moving farm equipment that frequents the intersection.
MoDOT reiterated that the crossing was on a list for improvements, but the state provided no timeline for initiating the $400,000 in repairs and upgrades. The state transportation department also declined to say why the crossing was included on the list.
"We were told back in '21 and back in '19 that it was on their list of crossings to address, but unfortunately they didn’t get to it," Emmerich said. "It is frustrating, but you got to understand that we deal with this all the time with state and federal government."
The Missouri State Freight and Rail Plan, which was published in February 2022, included the installation of lights and gates along with roadway improvements on a list of short-term capital rail investments.
Again, no timetable for beginning or completing the work was provided.
Residents in the area contacted the Chariton County Commission on May 23, 2022, about overgrown brush obstructing the view at the Porche Prairie Crossing and further limiting the sightlines.
The commission contacted MoDOT’s rail safety team, but never received a response, according to Emmerich, who said fixing the crossing "should’ve been a priority a long time ago."
The commission then reached out to BNSF’s roadmaster on May 31, 2022, to discuss concerns about visibility at the crossing. It is unclear what, if any, response the railroad provided.
The crash of the Amtrak train — which had left Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, less than two hours before the incident — happened less than four weeks later.
Emmerich said that he doesn't blame MoDOT or the railroad for the crash, but wished more had been done to make it safer before Monday's tragedy happened.
"We would like to see improvements made," Emmerich said. "That’s the No. 1 thing that improvements be made there so we can try to avoid something else like this."
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates civil transportation crashes, said the preliminary investigation has ruled out mechanical failure related to the train or an issue with the track as the cause of the crash.
The KSHB 41 I-Team contacted MoDOT about why the safety improvements have not happened at the crossing yet.
A spokeswoman said the process takes many years and the next step would be to take a look at the crossing with the county and the railroad company, BNSF, to see what needs to be done.
That step has not happened yet despite funding for the project having been approved in July 2021.
The I-Team continues to request an interview with MoDOT, but the agency did not make anyone available on Wednesday.
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