By Maleah Funderburk
In a small college community like Wingate, no one would expect train collisions to be a recurring issue on campus. But this academic year the town has become a magnet for railroad accidents due to the increased traffic coming from the Monroe Expressway bypass and the influx of tractor-trailer trucks making their way through town to U.S. Highway 74.
Many truck drivers mistakenly enter the toll road and retreat from it at the nearest exit, and Wingate is one of the first. Despite the “Low Clearance” signs at the North Camden Road and Main Street crossings, semi-trucks risk getting stuck while driving over the tracks because of the extreme hump in the road at both crossings.
There have been three train accidents since the beginning of this academic year; the first resulted in the tragic death of freshman basketball player Kyle Honore, 19, on Aug. 16, 2022. Two more accidents on the train tracks involving trucks happened within a week of each other near the end of January, neither resulting in any injuries.
On Jan. 19, a crash involving a CSX train and a tractor-trailer carrying food supplements for animals occurred on a Thursday afternoon, when the truck got its landing gear caught on the hump while driving over the rails.
On Jan. 25, a train struck another tractor-trailer when its trailer half got stuck on the tracks and was hit by and then wrapped around the front of an oncoming train.
Both recent accidents took place on weekdays when spring semester classes were in session and disrupted life on campus. On Jan. 19, many dorm residents near the North Camden crossing were asked to move their cars during the clean-up. Six days later, power was out across campus all morning until being restored around 1 p.m., causing some classes to be cancelled and shutting down the W.T. Harris Dining Hall for breakfast and lunch.
With all the rail-crossing upheaval, Wingate University students are becoming increasingly concerned about train safety on campus.
“When I first heard about the train accidents, I was in shock,” Wingate senior Stephen Yang said. “I couldn’t believe something like that had actually happened on our campus.”
The toll-road bypass was opened by the state on Nov. 27, 2018, and town officials say 20 trucks have become stuck on the two Wingate crossings during the last three years.
“Being that the safety of our campus community is a top priority, Wingate University officials look forward to the Town of Wingate, the N.C. Department of Transportation and CSX (Railroad) coming together to find a solution that makes the track adjacent to the university safer for those who live and work nearby,” said Wingate President Rhett Brown.
That’s easier said than done, however. University and town officials have been pushing to get the NCDOT and CSX to come together and reach a solution to the problem, but it will cost an estimated $1 million to level the crossings and make them easier for large commercial trucks to drive over.
According to Wingate Town Manager Brad Sellers, the discussion has been ongoing for three years and is turning into a “political war.”
“NCDOT is willing to fix it to the tune of $1 million,” Sellers said. “However, we would have to close the crossing at North Stewart Street (near Wingate Elementary School). It’s going to create more congestion and more traffic. That’s what’s so frustrating for us.”
NCDOT Rail Director Jason Orthner said the process of raising the road surrounding the tracks could take at least 18 months to accomplish. All parties are working toward an agreement on how to approach the project without disrupting the flow of traffic and the construction of hundreds of new homes near that area.
CSX issued a statement regarding the issue: “CSX oversees the maintenance of railroad crossings on our network. However, state and/or local road authorities, not CSX, maintain roadway approaches and determine the type of crossing that is appropriate at each public crossing location. CSX has always and will continue to maintain open lines of communication and work with public officials to identify crossings that are ideal candidates for safety improvements, consolidation and closure. Closing at-gate crossings will improve public safety by eliminating the risk of crossing collisions. However, the authority to close or improve safety at crossings on public roads rests with state and local municipalities , not the railroads. … ”
CSX added that it often offers incentives for such projects on its rail network—a match of available federal funding, for instance—for the consolidation and repair of crossings.
For now, Wingate officials urge truckers to make note of the Low Clearance signs and have the proper equipment to cross the tracks safely. The big worry and worst-case scenario for town officials is a potential train derailment, which would be cause for a town and university evacuation. Currently, a disaster plan is being formulated with the Wingate Fire Department in case something that dire happens. “It’s a ticking time bomb,” said Sellers. “Something devastating is going to happen. It can be fixed.”