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The Wilmington, Massachusetts Board of Selectmen is sounding the alarm on a new problem discovered with railroad crossing gates at the same intersection where a woman was struck and killed by an MBTA Commuter Rail train last month.
The incident involving the crossing gates happened near the North Wilmington MBTA station.
Town officials said just after midnight Friday, the crossing arms came down across Middlesex Avenue and remained in the horizontal position, reportedly requiring a representative from Keolis, the company hired by the MBTA to operate the commuter rail, to correct the problem.
According to the Board of Selectmen, at 6:44 a.m. Friday, as a commuter rail train was passing over the crossing at Middlesex Avenue, the crossing arms failed to activate to extend across the road in a timely manner that would provide pedestrian or motor vehicle traffic adequate time to respond.
The selectmen said the crossing gates were reported to be deploying into the horizontal position just as a train proceeded to cross Middlesex Avenue -- with what the Board of Selectmen said was "inadequate advance notice to pedestrians and motorists."
The incident comes less than a month after the train crossing gates did not activate, leading to the death of Roberta Sausville Devine, a local resident who was crossing the tracks in a vehicle at the time.
"These incidents and reports of other grade crossing equipment failures at the Glen Road rail crossing have occurred less than a month after the completely avoidable tragedy that took the life of Wilmington resident Roberta Sausville Devine," the Board of Selectmen said in a statement.
In that incident on Friday, Jan. 21, a Keolis signal maintainer had performed regularly-scheduled testing at that railroad crossing before the deadly collision between Devine's vehicle and an MBTA Commuter Rail train.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak previously said that the preliminary investigation into that collision indicated that the crossing's safety system was not returned to its normal operating mode following the testing. The failure resulted in the train crossing gates not coming down in a timely manner as the Commuter Rail train approached Middlesex Avenue.
The Haverhill Line MBTA train struck the driver's side of a vehicle that was being driven by 68-year-old Roberta Sausville, of Wilmington. Sausville was pronounced dead at the scene.
Sausville, who went by the nickname Robbi, worked at the Jamaica Plain VA Medical Center in Boston and was a soloist with the Ipswich River Community Chorus.
"In immediate response to that tragedy, the Board of Selectmen and our state legislative delegation communicated with MBTA representatives and implored them to take immediate steps to address failures either of a technical or human nature to ensure that the safety devices at the rail crossing in North Wilmington and throughout town function properly," a statement from the board said. "The Board also insisted that the MBTA issue a communication explaining the steps being taken to ensure the safety of the crossings."
The Board of Selectmen said the MBTA has failed to issue any such communication.
"As has become abundantly clear, [they] failed to take these matters seriously enough to take steps that provide reliable safety equipment at the North Wilmington rail crossing," the statement said.
The town said it was working with State Sen. Bruce Tarr and State Reps. Kenneth Gordon and David Robertson to schedule a meeting with Poftak to reiterate that their response "has been completely lacking" and to demand that safety at rail crossings are a top priority.
"As the Board does not have statutory authority over the MBTA commuter rail operation and its infrastructure, we will be working with the legislative delegation to hold the MBTA accountable to provide safe grade crossings for residents and non-residents passing through our community," the Board of Selectmen said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the MBTA said Friday evening that the railroad crossing's safety system "performed as it was designed to."
"When snow piles melt and the water mixes with salt that was used to treat roads, ponding can occur in the tracks at railroad crossings," Joe Pesaturo, MBTA spokesperson said. "Upon sensing something occupying the space between the rails (shortly after midnight), the safety system's gates were automatically lowered (as designed). This is the manner in which crossing systems around the world operate."
The spokesperson said the incident was not a failure or malfunction of the crossing's safety system.
Pesaturo said from shortly after midnight until mid-morning Friday, all MBTA Commuter Rail trains came to a stop approximately 50 feet before entering the Middlesex Avenue crossing.
"It's at this location where the train interacts with track circuits that trigger the lowering of the gates, allowing the train to roll through the crossing at a slow rate of speed," Pesaturo said.
The spokesperson said by mid-to-late morning, the railroad right-of-way was clear of salt-filled water, and the crossing system and trains returned to standard operation.
"At no point [Friday] were the gates up while a train was traveling through the crossing," Pesaturo said.
An updated statement from the Board of Selectman late Friday said it remained unconvinced about the safety of the crossing.
"Notwithstanding the recent statement the MBTA has issued [Friday] evening that attempts to explain the incidents from earlier today, the Board remains unconvinced that the explanation addresses the ongoing reliability of the mechanical systems and policy/protocol systems in place to guard against future accidents at the north Wilmington rail crossing and other rail crossings in Wilmington."
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