Hall County Board of Commissioners Work session
What: Discussion about Tumbling Circle railroad crossing
When: 3 p.m. Monday
Where: Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville
An investigation by The Times has revealed a pattern of misreporting data by state and federal authorities concerning the Tumbling Circle railroad crossing in Hall County.
The investigation also calls into question whether more could have been done by the Georgia Department of Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway to improve safety at the crossing.
Hall County officials have declined to close the crossing on two occasions. They dispute the danger presented and want to keep it open for public use.
But after a petition was filed by Norfolk Southern, the GDOT ordered the crossing to be closed in a September letter to county officials.
Barricades were erected at the crossing last month and Norfolk Southern plans to place a permanent guardrail at the site.
Tumbling Circle can be used as a westward cut-through from Ga. 13/Atlanta Highway to Old Oakwood Road, which then leads to Mundy Mill Road to the south and Mountain View Road to the north.
Heading in the opposite direction, Tumbling Circle acts as an access point to exit 17 off Interstate 985.
On a typical day, 25 to 30 trains pass over the Tumbling Circle crossing, including Amtrak passenger trains, according to Norfolk Southern spokesman Rick Harris.
The rail line is part of a heavily traveled main route linking Washington with Atlanta.
“It’s clearly in the interest of public safety that we are closing this crossing,” Harris told The Times last month.
The GDOT asserted last year that five fatalities have occurred from collisions between automobiles and trains at the Tumbling Circle crossing.
But according to accident reports from the Federal Railroad Administration, nine car-train accidents have occurred at the crossing since December 1997. The reports indicate six motorists were injured in those accidents, but no one died.
GDOT spokeswoman Teri Pope said the 2013 report was erroneous and that Hall County officials had been notified this year about the faulty data.
“There were no fatalities included in these reports that affected the final recommendation by GDOT to grant the closure,” Pope said.
County officials have said the crossing is not being closed over public safety concerns but rather to serve the railway’s bottom line by allowing trains to increase their speeds, as well as avoid costs associated with maintaining active warning devices such as gates and flashing lights.
The financial considerations at play are huge for both the GDOT and Norfolk Southern. According to GDOT officials, active warning devices can cost in excess of $250,000 to install. Maintenance of the devices falls on the railroad company.
An analysis of crash data by The Times — based on comparing accident reports along the same Norfolk Southern Railway line in Hall County with public at-grade crossings similar to Tumbling Circle — shows that while accidents have been more frequent at Tumbling Circle, nine deaths have occurred at six other Hall County crossings over the last few decades.
Most of those crossings either had active warning signals, such as gates, in place at the time of fatal accidents, or do now.
But Tumbling Circle is equipped with just a stop sign and “crossbucks” notifying motorists that they have reached a railroad crossing. Gates, flashing lights, “wigwag” signal flags, bells or other active warning features have never been installed.
Nevertheless, a report from the Federal Railroad Administration incorrectly shows that active warning devices were placed at the Tumbling Circle crossing in February 2010.
GDOT officials confirmed they have never approved warning devices at Tumbling Circle.
The federal report lists Tumbling Circle as Creek Road, a common mistake because Tumbling Circle and Tumbling Creek Road are the same.
GDOT officials said there used to be another railroad crossing nearby that had gates prior to being closed and “could be the crossing in question” in the federal report.
But the federal report also includes accident history data which exactly matches the accident history of the Tumbling Circle crossing.
Whatever the reason for the faulty data, it is clear Tumbling Circle has needed safety improvements for years.
The GDOT receives about $8 million annually in federal funds to improve safety at railroad crossings statewide. A full 50 percent of those funds must be set aside for installation of warning and protective devices at highway-rail crossings.
But that money has never flowed to Tumbling Circle despite the crossing being on the GDOT’s radar for upgrades for more than a decade.
GDOT officials said the federal money is used to review and implement upgrades for more than 5,000 crossings in Georgia, and that they also are charged with consolidating and eliminating crossings in addition to improving signing and marking.
GDOT officials told The Times that Tumbling Circle has been recommended for closure since August 2000.
But a report from the Federal Railroad Administration obtained by The Times, which reports the 10 most hazardous highway-rail crossings in all 50 states, shows officials were still debating what to do with the Tumbling Circle crossing in February 2002.
While nine of the 10 crossings on the list for Georgia were proposed for either closure or to receive gates, Tumbling Circle’s recommendation was listed as “consulting district office.”
Moreover, a June 2014 state transportation improvement program draft outlines budgeting for railroad crossing upgrades at several locations from Toccoa to Oakwood, but Tumbling Circle apparently is not included.