Frequent issues with crossing gates contributed to deadly Amtrak train crash, Atherton resident says

ATHERTON, Mo. – The death of Jennifer Norris, 41, has sent shockwaves through her community. Norris was killed after driving her truck around a train barricade and into the path of an Amtrak train.

“I don’t know if there is anybody that lives down here that can’t say they’ve not done it at least once, where you want to get home and you can’t sit there for an hour and stare at the guards while they are there, not going back up and you know nothing is coming,” Atherton resident Holly Cheatum said.

Cheatum said in the 10 years she’s lived in town, she’s learned the railroad barricades can be frustrating.

“The guardrails very regularly aren’t working. The railroad company is out constantly working on them.” Cheatum said. “I remember one time they were down for over a day and everybody had to go the back way to get here which is over a 30-minute drive through Buckner and around and across another set of train tracks to get here.”

Cheatum said residents have found other ways to work around this common problem.

“Because they malfunction so frequently, because so frequently a train is parked there and we know it’s down because the train is parked there. After seeing it day after day for so many years, you get too comfortable and you go around,” she said.

Witnesses said Norris tried to avoid the barricade on Saturday night. Her boyfriend and six-year-old daughter were in the truck and managed to survive the crash.

“It is very, very sad. I had her older daughter on my bus and some of my coworkers have had the little one that was in the track accident on their bus, and it just breaks your heart that somebody from this area could go and do something like that,” Kathy Neidel, a school bus driver and Atherton resident, said.

Neidel said it’s a risky maneuver that she has seen many drivers try on the tracks before.

“I sat there last week and this is a double track so that one train had passed on by and I waited my 15 seconds and as I waited and counting my 15 seconds, the guy behind me starts blowing his horn like, 'c’mon. Get on with it,'” she said.

Cheatum said this isn’t the first time someone has died on the tracks but hopes it will be the last.

“I think everybody is devastated. It’s a small community. Everybody knows everybody and someone lost their life and nobody wants to have to live with that,” Cheatum said.

The Southwest Chief was en route to Kansas City from Chicago. Amtrak released this statement to FOX4:

Amtrak Train 3, the Southwest Chief, was delayed by about three hours after making contact with a vehicle on the tracks at a crossing between LaPlata and Kansas City, Mo. There were no injuries to the 102 Amtrak customers or to the train crew. There was cosmetic damage to the lead locomotive of the westbound train, which operates daily between Chicago and Los Angeles.

In this area, Train 3 uses tracks owned, maintained and dispatched by BNSF Railway Co.

These incidents are often tragic and are avoidable by drivers if they heed the warnings of the approaching train and wait a minute or so for it to pass.

For more information, visit Operation Lifesaver, the railroad industry-supported safety campaign at oli.org.