Are JTA buses following best practices at railroad crossings?

I-TEAM asks federal agencies to review two recent incidents

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The collision of a Jacksonville Transportation Authority bus and an Amtrak train Monday morning in Murray Hill is the fourth serious incident involving a JTA bus that our I-TEAM has investigated in just three weeks.

In the latest incident, there was only one minor injury -- the bus driver -- and she was treated and released from a hospital. She will remain off duty during the investigation.

The JTA is not only investigating this crash, but it has dispatched supervisors to this intersection and one in San Marco where a railroad crossing arm came down on a city bus last week. In that incident, a JTA spokesman said that driver didn't violate any protocols for stopping this close to the track.

The I-TEAM obtained the JTA rule book for drivers. Under Railroad Grade Crossings, it reads: "Operators must bring their bus to a full stop and clear of railroad gates and/or flashers, not less than 5 nor more than 25 feet from the nearest rail."

The manual also says bus operators must not proceed into grade crossings without first seeing that the tracks are clear. So how could a bus be hit by a train? We were told that is under investigation.

We asked both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) if the procedures JTA drivers are told to follow are the best practices in the industry. A spokesman with the FTA sent a statement that reads:

The safety of transit passengers and employees is a top priority of the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT).

Transit agencies are required to report certain safety and security data to the National Transit Database (NTD). Note that larger transit agencies such as the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) are required to report data for bus incidents that meet at least one of these thresholds: damage greater than $25,000, a fatality or a major injury.

FTA is aware of these recent events at the JTA and is monitoring the situation. In addition, the Florida Department of Transportation, has safety oversight responsibilities for JTA bus operations.

After Monday's crash, trains are now slowing down before crossing the railroad tracks at McDuff Avenue and being manually waived to cross. The JTA said it is reevaluating the crossing.

The JTA said city buses are crossing a train track in Jacksonville 1,200 times every weekday. That's 15 different bus routes crossing 13 railroad crossings throughout Jacksonville.

The gravity of drivers being responsible for the lives of their passengers is undoubtedly on the mind of JTA officials after the recent death of a woman who became entangled with a bus and was run over last month.

The JTA is an independent authority, not subject to direct oversight by the city. The JTA assured the I-TEAM that accidents are investigated by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office as well as internally, and they report accidents to the Federal DOT and the National Transit Database.

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