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Hall County, business leaders want firm commitment before closing rail crossing
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Tyler Pinson, in plaid shorts and surrounded by friends and family, said his brakes failed on the dirt and gravel of Tumbling Creek Circle as he approached the Norfolk Southern tracks last week. Pinson, of Gainesville, slid sideways across the tracks and couldn’t back up in time before an oncoming Amtrak train collided almost head-on with his truck. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Last week’s collision of a pickup and an Amtrak train at the Tumbling Creek Circle crossing demonstrated the safety concerns there, but business leaders want a firm commitment from Norfolk Southern to secure a bridge there before closing it.

Gainesville resident Tyler Pinson escaped with minor injuries after hitting the train carrying 197 passengers almost head-on a week ago.

It’s been the site of several accidents, including fatalities, since 1997, said Jason Field, a railway and highway engineer with Moffatt & Nichol, a consulting firm working with the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Wendell Starke, developer of the Mundy Mill subdivision, said many students use the crossing to reach Lanier Career Center on Tumbling Creek Road.

“In going back and forth to the university, most anyone uses that crossing,” Starke said. “It’s just a more convenient way out. It keeps you from having to go back in through the traffic on Mundy Mill Road itself.”

The railroad crossing is unguarded and has no signals indicating a train is coming. Starke agrees it is dangerous.

The businesses and the residents go that way because it’s easier. He said he hopes the bridge is built sooner rather than later and Norfolk Southern could help with the cost.

“You pull up there and hope there’s no train coming,” he said.

Field requested the Hall County Board of Commissioners close the crossing and abandon the right of way in the early part of June. DOT recommended the closing as part of its crossing safety program. Norfolk Southern supports the recommendation, he said.

Commissioners decided to table the issue until Norfolk Southern came back to them with a stronger agreement for a bridge there. The railroad company sent the county a letter in March that said if a bridge or “grade separated structure” is placed at the crossing, it wouldn’t ask the county to close additional crossings.

Ken Rearden, director of Hall County Public Works, intends to ask the railroad to support an effort to build a bridge to connect Millside Parkway to Tumbling Creek Road in the area of the current crossing or nearby, said Katie Crumley, public information officer for the county.

R.K. Whitehead, owner of Whitehead Die Casting, said he would hate for the county to agree to the closing and have the railroad change its mind. His business doesn’t use the crossing very much, but it’s important from an economic development perspective, he said.

“I’d hate to see the county agree to it without having a pretty solid understanding with the railroad that by the time the bridge was deemed appropriate that they would be supportive of the crossing,” Whitehead said.

Richard Barringer, director of grade crossing safety for Norfolk Southern, said the company was ready and willing to work with Hall County.

“I don’t think we would ever oppose any type of grade separation,” he said. “That’s the safest crossing you can have.”