AUSTIN (KXAN) — It was a Thursday morning in busy downtown Austin rush hour. Uber driver Roberto Gonzalez had just dropped off one passenger and was on his way to pick up another.
The sun was easing its way along the sidewalk and hadn’t yet hit the road as he drove south on the Interstate 35 service road and approached the railroad crossing at Fourth Street with blue skies blazing overhead. It’s a route he’d taken plenty of times before, but this time Gonzalez’s body jolted forward as his seatbelt tightened around his chest and stomach, and his life flashed before his eyes.
“All of this happened so fast that what I felt most was the adrenaline from the scare that it gave me,” he said in Spanish.
With the help of a translator, Gonzalez described hearing metal crunching around him. He peered through the cracked windshield of his red, four-door Toyota Camry. He was closer than anybody should ever be to the side of a moving MetroRail train. The front end of Gonzalez’s car was smashed up against the side of the commuter train, which quickly stopped on the tracks. None of the 10 passengers on board were hurt. The train had just left the downtown station next to the Austin Convention Center and many of the commuters were on their way to work.
“Felt like just a quick bump to the train,” said passenger Steven Gonzalez, no relation to Roberto Gonzalez, who was sitting in a seat on the train that was about 10 feet away from the point of impact.
Austin police officers arrived and were some of the first people to check on Roberto.
“They told me ‘What happened, you didn’t see the barriers?'” he said.
Gonzalez responded, “The barriers are untouched. They never went down. They didn’t work.”
Contractor points finger at train engineer
Days later, when Capital Metro released video of the crash captured on various train cameras, it appeared Gonzalez was right. The crossing arm was on its way down when his car collided with the train on Nov. 1, 2018. It was not yet blocking the crossing and Gonzalez says he never heard bells or saw lights flashing.
However, CapMetro says the issue wasn’t technical at all — it all boiled down to the train engineer’s error.
“I believe based on what was provided, the facts that were provided to me, that the gate arms were working properly at the time of the accident,” said Gardner Tabon, the Vice President of Safety Risk Management for Capital Metro.
Tabon also said despite the arms not being fully lowered, the lights were flashing and by law drivers are supposed to stop. But Capital Metro does not know at what point the lights started flashing as the driver approached the crossing.
Initially, the Austin police officer investigating the crash said the warning system malfunctioned. But after further review, Herzog, which operates the MetroRail, blamed its own employee in the final crash report.
Herzog wrote the train engineer started speeding up and got to the crossing too soon. The company added the engineer should have noticed the arms were not down and stopped before reaching the crossing. Along with the high speed, the engineer also told officials the sun was in his eyes, which prevented him from seeing the arms.
To be sure, a CapMetro crew checked out the warning system, as did KXAN. On a random day in January, a KXAN investigations team went back to the crossing where the crash took place and watched multiple trains go by. There were no issues.
Once the lights start flashing, 20 seconds should pass before the train goes through the crossing.
That warning time is important because most people aren’t as lucky as Gonzalez. Many train-car collisions result in death because regular cars are no match for heavy trains typically traveling very fast.
‘To this day, I still have nothing’
Gonzalez was rushed to the hospital after the crash. Police and nurses told him the same thing.
“You are someone who can celebrate this day as if it’s another birthday. It’s a big deal because you are OK,” Gonzalez said. He was able to go home that same night with just some pain medication and didn’t have any broken bones. Yet, he couldn’t work for 20 days and is still going back-and-forth with his insurance company.
He believes the language barrier is slowing things down, so he hired a lawyer who is trying to help him cover his hospital bill and get a new car.
“In that moment, I was left without a job, I was left without savings because everything was used in those days I was not working,” Gonzalez said. “The rent had to be paid. I was left without a car and to this day, I still have nothing — and from an accident that wasn’t even my fault.”
Herzog officials have not responded to KXAN’s attempt to contact them. According to the company’s final crash report, the train engineer was drug-tested after the crash. He did not operate a train until the investigation was complete and went through refresher training before operating another MetroRail train.
Who maintains the warning systems at railroad crossings?
CapMetro says Herzog checks crossings regularly where MetroRail trains pass through and must meet certain requirements from the Federal Railroad Administration. Union Pacific maintains the crossings it utilizes.
Under federal law and regulations, maintenance of highway-grade crossings and tracks are the responsibility of individual railroads. Federal regulations do specify the frequency of inspections required and those depend on the type of track.
KXAN has started checking the timing of warning systems at random crossings to make sure drivers were getting at least a 20-second heads up. So far, the flashing lights have all triggered at the proper time. There’s only been one crossing on Ohlen Road near Burnet Road where both arms did not come down at the same time.
If you notice a problem, there’s a small blue sign with a phone number at each crossing you can call. The number connects you to a CapMetro emergency call center: 1-844-592-8046