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Tumbling Circle controversy brings 1968 tragedy to mind
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Controversial railroad crossings are nothing new in Hall County.

In January 1968, five students from Gainesville State College (what is now the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus) were killed when their car was struck by a Southern Railway Co. train at a railroad crossing on Mundy Mill Road.

That crossing is near the Tumbling Circle crossing that is generating so much debate today.

And the similarities between what happened then and what is happening now are eerie.

According to an article in the Gainesville Times located in the newspaper’s archives, the Mundy Mill crossing was a popular route for students in the 1960s.

Indeed, the students killed that tragic day in 1968 had just left the college.

“Most of the college’s 720 students crossed the bumpy tracks by the steel plant and the pine grove as often as twice a day,” the article states, “taking that route until a four-lane connection with Gainesville is complete on the other side of the college.”

There is now a bridge along Mundy Mill Road that spans the railroad tracks.

“The concern came to its tragic focus Thursday when a fast train and the car met in an explosive collision and four students were killed,” the article continues. “Another was critically injured; he died Saturday morning.”

The article goes on to question why some warning signals were not present at the crossing, and includes a statement from the Southern Railway Co., a predecessor to Norfolk Southern Railway.

In that statement, the company says it had performed an investigation of the crossing in 1967 but found traffic volume “did not justify” installing any crossing protection devices, adding that visibility was good in both directions.

The company went on to say it had been willing to install signals at the crossing, but only if Hall County paid for them.

Financial considerations appear to have played a role in the fact that Norfolk Southern, the Georgia Department of Transportation and Hall County have not funded crossbars, flashing lights or additional warning signs at the Tumbling Circle railroad crossing.

Moreover, plans to build a bridge over the crossing, which has seen nine car-train accidents since 1997, have never materialized.

In a June 2013 document, the DOT reports that five fatalities have occurred at the Tumbling Circle crossing over an unspecified period of time as a result of car-train crashes.

But, according to accident reports from the Federal Railroad Administration, nine collisions between cars and trains have occurred at the crossing since December 1997, but there were no fatalities.

Meanwhile, some county officials have questioned whether the DOT’s statistics refer to the 1968 accident.

The Times published a story Tuesday about the latest controversy surrounding the crossing, which generated some reader response online.

One commenter, recalling the tragedy of 1968, wrote, “I still remember the horror of that day when leaving college and we got down to the track crossing (no cross arm/lights at the old crossing) and you could see pieces of the car and school books and paper flying around. I rolled down my car window to ask what happened and the smell of the blood and the sight of the buzzards circling overhead is forever engraved in my mind.”