A dump truck driver thought he could outrun a speeding train.
In March 2021, a small group of men met at a rural railroad
crossing in northern Missouri that locals had long been
complaining about because of its steep grade and lack of
A farmer leading the effort to improve the crossing was among
those who gathered at the Porche Prairie Avenue Crossing
southwest of Mendon. All three Chariton County commissioners
were there, along with a safety official with the Missouri
Department of Transportation and a representative from a local
In the wake of Monday’s deadly Amtrak derailment that killed
four people and injured 150, last year’s meeting at the crossing
has taken on new meaning and importance. Not only for the
desperate call to fix and improve the crossing but also for the
fact that no one did.
“We had high hopes that something was going to get done there,”
said Paul Speichinger, a Chariton County farmer, who wasn’t at
the meeting but has complained about the crossing over the
years. “We really hoped and anticipated that we’d have something
done last fall, and the commissioners have been on the officials
to get something done.
“But it fell on deaf ears.”
In fact, their efforts ran into a wall of state bureaucracy, The
Star has found.
That meeting at the crossing last year did possibly prompt the
state, in July 2021, to place the crossing high on its priority
list to make it safer.
But that didn’t mean the fix would come anytime soon.
Unbeknownst to the community, because of budget constraints and
the slow pace of government projects, any safety improvements
would still have been years away.
Although residents complained about the crossing for years, BNSF
Railway, the railroad that owns the track, told The Star that
the Missouri Department of Transportation had not — even up to
the day of the crash — contacted them to conduct an official
review of the site that is required before any repairs are
“I can tell you that we have not been contacted over this
crossing to work on a diagnostic review,” said BNSF spokeswoman
Lena Kent. “That is a critical step of this process to move
“You can’t just, you know, have somebody out there say, ‘Hey, I
think we need gates,’ and the next day we show up with some
gates. That’s not how that works. You have to go through that
The Missouri Department of Transportation has authority over
public railroad crossings and runs the state’s railroad safety
A MoDOT spokeswoman confirmed that although MoDOT alerted BNSF
earlier this year that the crossing has been put near the top of
its priority list to be fixed, the agency had not yet contacted
the railroad to conduct a review of the site.
“It was approved last July (as a priority) and our staff reached
out,” MoDOT spokeswoman Linda Wilson Horn said Tuesday of BNSF.
“The diagnostic review has not been scheduled yet.”
Did MoDOT ‘drop the ball’?
For residents like Mike Spencer, who farms 1,600 acres around
what he has long viewed as a potentially deadly crossing, word
of the state’s inaction came as a shock.
He was the Mendon resident who last year stood at the crossing
with the county commissioners, an area engineering firm
representative and a MoDOT railroad safety specialist. Spencer
said he initiated the meeting with MoDOT in the expectation that
the state and BNSF would soon fix the dangerous crossing.
Everyone — MoDOT, the commissioners, the engineering
representative — agreed that changes needed to be made.
“They were right on board,” Spencer said of the commission
members. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, this has got to be fixed. We
are going to do whatever we can.’”
Presiding Commissioner Evan Emmerich has notes from that
meeting. He detailed how the crossing was “very steep” and
needed to be addressed. And that it is “difficult to see” at
that location because “the gravel road and railroad intersect at
“MoDOT still has the crossing on their list to repair,” Emmerich
wrote in his notes. “But no timeline was given to us.”
After that meeting, Spencer and others in the community felt
change was coming. Soon.
But then Spencer would check in with the state month after month
and nothing was happening. He said he was first led to believe
that the project was stalled because of MoDOT budget constraints.
He said he was later told by MoDOT that the crossing
construction had been “tabled,” leading him to surmise that the
delays were due to the railroad. Earlier this year, he asked if
the tall brush surrounding the tracks could at least be removed,
because it obscured drivers’ views of oncoming trains. Still
Residents continued to complain as recently as last month. The
Chariton County Commission emailed MoDOT about the brush on May
23. When MoDOT didn’t respond, the commission emailed BNSF a
As recently as Monday, Spencer was placing full blame for the
crash on BNSF for not fixing the crossing.
“Now I’m wondering if MoDOT didn’t drop the ball on us,” Spencer
said, “and maybe nothing was ever in the works to get anything
‘A couple of years’
For its part, the agency said it was in the process of
correcting the crossing. But because of the way the system
works, nothing was going to happen immediately.
The first step is for the state to identify a potentially
dangerous crossing and decide it is a priority to be fixed. That
happened for the Mendon crossing in July 2021. The next step is
to schedule a “diagnostic review.”
In a review, officials from the railroad, MoDOT and the
government body that owns the road visit the crossing and
determine what is required to make it safe. Together, they then
draw up a plan for whatever is needed: lights, bells, railroad
gates, changing the grade of the road, perhaps even eliminating
None of that happens fast.
“It usually takes a couple of years to have a plan and designs
ready for a contractor to do the work,” Horn of MoDOT said.
The actual construction adds even more time. MoDOT, Horn said,
has limited funds to improve crossing safety. It has $7.5
million a year, receiving $6 million each year in what are known
as Section 130 funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation,
and $1.5 million through a state fund.
Because each crossing improvement project costs $400,000 on
average, the state can only add lights, gates, bells, or do road
repairs on 20 crossings a year.
According to a draft version of the Missouri Highway-Rail Grade
Crossing State Action Plan, the state has nearly 4,400 public
rail crossings. Some 1,600 crossings in the state do not have
lights and gates.
In the five years between 2016 and 2020, 37 people have been
killed and 89 injured at crossings in Missouri.
Spencer does not hold BNSF blameless in this week’s deadly wreck.
The railroad, he said, has long been aware of the steep grade at
the crossing, making it difficult for trucks or heavy farm
equipment to climb to the top of the tracks and over. According
to the presiding commissioner’s notes, the commission first
spoke to Spencer about the crossing in December 2019.
“He has been in contact with the railroad but said they were not
being very cooperative,” Emmerich wrote.
The dump truck involved in Monday’s wreck was owned by MS
Contracting in Brookfield. It was hauling a load of shot rock to
a nearby levee under repair by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On Monday, Spencer was at a restaurant in Columbia when his
phone erupted with calls and texts about the crash at the
crossing. The derailed train cars spilled into his fields.
“I texted him,” Spencer said of the MoDOT rail official he had
worked with. “I said, ‘OK, the crossing that we’ve been
concerned about and that you all said wasn’t going to get
completed: Now it’s going to make national news because I
understand there’s been a tremendous wreck.’
“He’s not texted or called me or nothing.”
30 June, 2022
BNSF is responsible for maintenance of their track
infrastructure. In areas like the accident site, track
inspections are done frequently due to the frequency of freight
trains and the daily Amtrak passenger operation. As stated by
numerous comments, Missouri DOT and local agencies share
responsibility in upgrading crossings and there is a
considerable list of "uncontrolled" ones to improve. The loss of
life of the truck driver and 3 passengers is a sad fact. Though
a survivor, the locomotive's engineer will be haunted by the
accident for the rest of his or her life. I've ridden in
locomotive cabs of passenger trains in the USA and in Canada, at
speeds above 60-70 mph. Even with a clear view of the track
ahead, slowing down to a low impact speed requires 90 seconds to
2 minutes and at least a half mile when moving at 90 mph which
is the passenger train maximum timetable speed for this section
of BNSF. Engineers qualified to run passenger trains have earned
that position and very often have the most seniority on a
railroad. It is a challenging occupation requiring skill,
training and attention to detail.
30 June, 2022
The town could have easily just raised the road on each side of
the crossing to make it much easier for trucks to cross.
That's something the farmer could have done by simply going to a
town meeting and pushing it. Simply looking at the map of the
area and you can see there's a lot of crossings like this.
Small dirt roads going to farm fields. Also I have yet to see
the "brush" they are talking about. There's two sets of tracks
and any brush/trees are at least 15 feet away from the tracks on
each side. That's close to the range of what track based
railroad brush clearing equipment can reach. I'm curious what
the crossing on Newhall road looks like since the driver could
have use it instead.