The Amtrak left the depot just after midnight Aug. 18, making its nightly run out of Lincoln on a route established nearly 150 years ago.

It built speed as it crossed several streets -- F, West A and Folsom -- and neared West South, now almost out of town. There, the crossing signals lit up and the train’s horn and headlight announced its approach, witnesses said.

The barrier arm went down.

But the car carrying two 17-year-olds simply steered around it, and into the Amtrak’s path.

For days afterward, friends gathered near the gates, planting a pair of wooden crosses and lighting dozens of prayer candles that rippled in the wind. They left tributes that told the story of the boys. Soccer shoes, basketballs, a work shirt.

Then someone propped a handmade sign against a pole: These tracks need a median.

A median is a concrete street divider that locks drivers in their lanes, preventing them from slipping between the barriers. And it might have prevented the Pontiac from crossing the train's path.

“The unfortunate thing with gates, people can choose to behave poorly and think they can go around them,” said Roger Figard, director of the city-county Railroad Transportation Safety District. “If you did have a median there, it makes it more difficult for people to do that.”

But they're not always required, and they're not a uniform feature at the city's dozens of crossings. They're often found where four-lane, median-divided roads cross railroad tracks, like near 27th and Nebraska 2.

And they're always found along the district’s six quiet zones, where trains keep their horns silent and the federal government requires additional safety measures, like near 33rd and Cornhusker.

Figard’s office had, in fact, been thinking about making the so-called Amtrak Line a quiet zone. More than a year ago, it hired a consultant to study what it would cost -- roughly $5 million -- and whether the silence of the horns would improve the quality of life along the line enough to justify that expense.

But then, about a year before last month’s collision, the Railroad Transportation Safety District had another thought. What would it take to get rid of the tracks altogether?

No more horns. But more importantly, no more crossings.

“In the back of our minds, we’re saying, ‘We’re spending $5 million but we’ll still have the trains there,’” Figard said. “That’s when the idea of track relocation and abandonment came up.”

* * *

The Hurricane rolled in from Plattsmouth in the summer of 1870, the first train to arrive in Lincoln.

By the next year, trains were beginning to depart Lincoln, too, headed southwest from downtown, and then west. The Burlington and Missouri established a series of alphabetical depots as it added track, starting with Asylum -- named for what now is the Regional Center. Then down the line: Berks, Crete, Dorchester, Exeter, Fairmont, Grafton, Harvard.

This was Lincoln's connection to the unfolding West, its main route, said railroad historian and author Michael Bartels. It carried freight, livestock and passengers to and from the young state capital.

The railroad built its yards along West O and, in 1910, opened the Denton cutoff -- a line that traveled due west out of town before curving to connect with the original line, on the other side of what is now Pioneers Park, Bartels said.

But the original route still carries an average of 22 trains per day, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. They cross seven streets and a bike trail in Lincoln, sometimes with deadly consequences.

In 1962, a mother driving five of her children home from school collided with a locomotive on South Coddington, just south of the Pioneers Park entrance. Their station wagon was catapulted 90 feet, and she and four of her children were killed.

The newspaper reported: “The engine was torn from the auto and thrown one way, the transmission the other. Children's books, lunch sacks and papers were strewn ... the car remained only a hollow, battered shell.”

Between 1952 and 1968, 55 people were killed and 57 were injured along the tracks in the Lincoln area, Figard said.

The Railroad Transportation Safety District was created in 1971 to address that. It added gates and signals, and it cut the number of at-grade crossings -- where trains and cars can meet -- in half, to about 100.

From 1982 to 1997, six people were killed and 21 were injured, Figard said.

Still, Lincoln's streets are getting busier. Today, roughly 8,500 vehicles daily travel the stretch of West A Street where the tracks cross, according to the most recent traffic counts, and nearly 3,800 were recorded on West South, not far from where the two students died last month.

“As the community has grown, and there's more vehicle traffic, the potential for track relocation becomes more real,” he said.

Amtrak Line collisions

Along the Amtrak Line, federal railroad crash reports dating to 1975 show 11 collisions, including five at the West South crossing, with two dead. In 2007, a driver was killed on Folsom. Two years later, a driver on West A died after dodging the gates and colliding with an Amtrak.

An Amtrak isn't a long train, only nine or 10 cars. Never a long wait.

“It’s kind of sad,” Bartels said. “A passenger train is so short; they’re at the crossing for less than a minute.”

* * *

In the spring of 2015, the Railroad Transportation Safety District hired Olsson Associates to study the costs -- and benefits -- of converting the Amtrak Line into a quiet zone.

When it got the $5 million estimate, it asked Olsson to start looking at what it would take to eliminate the tracks.

The short answer: $25 million to $35 million, based on preliminary estimates, and five to 10 years.

“That’s a lot more money, but in the end you need to weigh the cost benefits. You’ve eliminated eight crossings. You improve the safety and eliminate the conflict between trains, pedestrians, cars and bicycles,” Figard said. “And you eliminate the delay of people sitting in their cars at crossings.”

The railroad would have to build another track paralleling Hobson Yard along West O, upgrade the southwest connection to the Amtrak Line near Pioneers Park, and build more track so trains serving Yankee Hill Brick from the west can turn back around.

The public would pay for the changes. The railroad safety district is a taxing entity, and it would pay the biggest share. It would also seek state and federal rail safety funding, Figard said.

BNSF Railway is willing to consider the idea, but it likely isn’t willing to pay for a project it doesn't need.

“They told us they are open to the concept. They need to be made whole and their operation needs to be left intact,” Figard said.

A BNSF spokesman said it was too early for the railroad to comment. Amtrak, which uses BNSF’s tracks, would also have to agree to the move.

Figard’s board hopes to have the consultant's report by the end of the year, he said, and will make a decision after that.

* * *

Last month's collision is still under investigation by Lincoln police and the Federal Railroad Administration, representatives from both agencies said last week. But witnesses at the crossing and at the controls of the train were clear: They told officers the Pontiac ignored the stop sign on Folsom, turned the corner and went around the gates.

It's unclear how fast the California Zephyr was traveling -- police and Amtrak officials wouldn't release its speed -- but the train needed about a half-mile to stop, and pieces of the car were strewn along the tracks.

At the crossing, the sign calling for a median fell into the weeds and then disappeared, and the nightly gatherings of friends have all but stopped.

But the memorial remains. And Thursday night, nearly three weeks later, a single candle had been lit.

Memorial at rail crossing

A memorial to victims of a car-train collision stands near the BNSF Railway crossing at West South Street.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.


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