Abington Leaders, Crash Victim's Mother Call for Improved Safety at Railroad Crossings

In the last 25 years, six deaths have occurred at railroad crossings in Abington, Massachusetts, including three in the last year

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Lori Frost can still hear the train's horn from her home in Abington, Massachusetts.

Each time it blares, her mind is immediately taken back to May 13, 2022, the night her daughter, Katelyn McCarthy, was killed.

"The whole night is kind of a fog that I play over and over and over in my head every morning when I wake up," she said, dabbing tears from her cheeks.

Just before midnight, McCarthy was walking home with a friend when she was fatally struck by an MBTA Commuter Rail train. According to investigators with the Plymouth County District Attorney's Office, the Abington High School senior was walking eastbound on Birch Street, looking at her phone as she approached the tracks and stepped into the path of the oncoming train.

"My beautiful girl. I didn't know what to do," Frost said, recalling the conversation she had with the state trooper and police officer who knocked on her door in the early morning hours the next morning to give her the devastating news.

Frost is adamant her daughter did not take her own life. She believes her death was a preventable tragedy.

"She couldn't be happier," she said. "She was ready to take flight, then start her life."

From that day forward, Frost pledged to do whatever she could to improve safety at railroad crossings in Abington. Nearly a year removed from her daughter's death, she's even more determined to see change.

"I want that done for this town, for these children, for these families," she said of her efforts. "I don't want another mother to look like this. To feel broken."

Frost found an ally in Alex Bezanson, the chairman of the Abington Board of Selectman. As it turned out, he had been fighting to improve safety at the town's railroad crossings for much of the last decade.

"When I was on the board between 2015 and 2018, I contacted the MBTA and asked them to come to a selectmen's meeting to explain why there were so many incidents," he said.

Bezanson said those conversations were fruitless and he left the board in 2018 without making much progress.

"When I became chairman last May, I put this at the top of my list," he said. "Coincidentally, two weeks later, we had the tragic incident with Katelyn McCarthy."

McCarthy was the fourth person in the last 25 years to die at a railroad crossing in Abington. Less than a year later, the total number of fatalities is now six. The most recent death occurred on April 26.

"It's enraging," Frost said, her voice growing angrier. "[The MBTA] ought to be ashamed of themselves. The first girl that was killed, that should have been enough. Here we are, many body counts later."

Even before McCarthy's death, town leaders believed it was always a question of when, not if, another incident was going to take place in Abington. For years, they pleaded with the MBTA to do something to increase safety, but were told crossings met minimum federal safety standards.

Bezanson and Town Manager Scott Lambiase town set out to prove that minimum wasn't good enough.

"They're saying, 'Look, we meet all the federal requirements,' but the data tells me that the standards don't apply here," Lambiase said. "We need to do better. We have to outperform the standards."

The town hired the transportation consulting firm TrafInfo to conduct a safety study of Abington's seven at-grade commuter rail crossings.

Engineers with TrafInfo found that before the fatal crash on April 26, there had been 30 crashes along the MBTA Commuter Rail's Kingston Line, which has a total of 23 at-grade railroad crossings — locations where the roadway and railroad tracks intersect at the same level.

Eighteen of those crashes, nearly 60%, happened at the seven crossings in Abington, resulting in five fatalities.

Twelve crashes occurred at or between the North Avenue and Birch Street crossings, which are about 200 yards apart. According to the study, these two crossings have seen the most incidents and have the highest predicted number of crashes in Abington.

Data from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation shows that of the 244 at-grade MBTA Commuter Rail crossings in Massachusetts, North Avenue and Birch Street rank 11th and 16th, respectively, for the highest predicted number of crashes.

"Although they meet the requirements, I think that there are things that they could do to be safer — some by the town and some in coordination with the MBTA," said TrafInfo engineer Deanna Peabody.

The study found that additional safety measures like better signage, reworking crosswalks and slowing the trains — which the study found often travel at or near the maximum speed allowed by federal regulations — would make the crossings safer.

Bezanson wants four automated gates to stop traffic installed at Birch Street, which currently only has two gates. TrafInfo also suggested installing a second pedestrian gate to deter people from walking across the tracks when a train is arriving.

"There are additional complexities that come with [quad gates] that you have to account for, but in terms of its safety implications that would be the highest level of safety," said TrafInfo President Sudhir Murthy.

Bezanson believes quad gates would have saved McCarthy's life.

"She would have walked right into the gates," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind there will be another incident in Abington."

Bezanson's fears were realized on April 26. Transit police said a man drove around the automated gate on Birch Street — the same crossing where McCarthy was killed — and onto the tracks. The man's car was hit by the train, killing him.

The MBTA and Keolis, the commuter rail's operator, issued the following statement warning drivers of the dangers of trespassing on the tracks:

"With safety always a top priority, the MBTA, Keolis and Transit Police are committed to actively raising awareness of the dangers of trespassing along active track areas and grade crossings through a long-standing partnership with Operation Lifesaver, a public safety non-profit dedicated to rail safety education. Sometimes, an approaching train cannot be heard until it is too late. Even when a Commuter Rail train is not scheduled, freight trains can operate on the Commuter Rail network. Through its partnership with Operation Lifesaver, the MBTA continues to engage the public through educational initiatives about these risks in order to prevent potential tragedies. The crossings in Abington are fully equipped with all of the federally mandated safety features, including flashing lights, bells and gates. Motorists should never attempt to 'beat a train' when they see the crossing lights flashing and motorists should never drive around lowered gates. If pedestrians need to cross a railroad, they should use only designated crossings, look both ways, and cross the tracks quickly, without stopping."

After yet another incident, Bezanson is convinced the current safety measures are not enough. The town has sent a letter to the MBTA once again requesting a meeting to discuss improving safety.

The transit agency has not yet responded, but Bezanson is hopeful state legislators and the state's auditor will help move things forward.

"We're not going to give up. We're not going to accept no for an answer," he said.

Neither will Frost. She knows her daughter would not allow it.

"It's going to take a little money. It's going to take some planning. It's going to take some action, but we're going to save lives. I want to save lives," Frost said as tears streamed down her face. "It needs to stop. Please, please listen."

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