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Relatives, residents quiz Hickory officials on rail crossing

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Feb. 9, 2001
HICKORY Town officials canceled a board of aldermen's meeting here Thursday night for lack of a quorum only to have an informal gathering in the hallway outside the board room about the deadly Smede Street railroad crossing.
The crossing has no signal lights, bells or crossing gates to indicate an oncoming train. It has been the site of three fatal collisions since November 1999. The third death occurred Tuesday afternoon when Hickory resident Sidney Wagner's farm tractor was struck by an oncoming train.
Town officials say they rescheduled the meeting because only two aldermen attended which is not a quorum. They said others could not make it because of Wagner's funeral, also held Thursday. They rescheduled the meeting for next Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Hickory Town Hall.
Trinette Wilson and Kirk Buntyn lost their lives in collisions with Kansas City Southern freight trains at the Smede Street crossing in 1999. Some of their relatives and other residents questioned board attorney George Monroe and Alderman John Brand about what could be done about the dangerous site.
Addie Hamm asked if residents should go back to the rail division to get something done.
Monroe said Hickory Mayor Wayne Griffith, acting on behalf of the board, sent a letter to Dick Hall, MDOT's Central District Commissioner, requesting assistance in upgrading the crossing.
According to a copy of the letter, the board requested installation of warning lights, stop signs on each side of the crossing, and if possible, speed breakers. The letter also requested that trains' speed limits be dropped to 25 mph.
The letter is dated Jan. 5, 2000. Town officials say they received no response, sent another copy of the same letter, and have still received no reply from MDOT officials.
Residents wanted to know why town officials haven't closed the street if they can't authorize upgrades.
Monroe said MDOT officials have to close the crossing. He said the street itself can be closed but there are certain steps that have to be taken to do so. He said without looking back at the law, he could not say what those steps are.
In the case of a broken water line, the closing is only temporary, Monroe said. As far as permanently closing the street or at least temporarily closing the street until a better solution can be found Monroe said the board may consider it when they meet.
Residents agree. They say school buses cross the tracks at Smede Street six times each day. Buntyn said it's hard to judge a train's speed when it's headed straight toward a vehicle and there was no illumination on the crossbucks at the crossing when his son was killed.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@themeridianstar.com.