By RYAN LAROCHE
On January 21, Wilmington resident Roberta Sausville, 68, was driving eastbound on Middlesex Avenue in Wilmington when she attempted to cross the railroad tracks. Unfortunately, due to what the MBTA called “human error,” the gates never lowered signaling an oncoming train. Sausville’s vehicle was struck by a Haverhill line train coming inbound and she was tragically killed.
In a statement released by MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, he confirmed a Keolis signal maintainer was performing regularly scheduled testing of the railroad crossing safety system less than an hour before the incident.
The statement also suggests the safety system wasn’t returned to its normal operating mode following the test. This failure could result in train crossing gates to delay in coming down when needed.
The Keolis signal maintainer was placed on administrative leave pending the investigation.
Following the untimely death of Sausville, local politicians and members of the Board of Selectmen in Wilmington offered their condolences and vowed to uncover how the tragic accident happened and how to prevent it from happening again.
State Senator Bruce Tarr and State Representatives Dave Robertson and Ken Gordon released a joint statement that said, in part, “We are saddened by the loss of Roberta Sausville in this tragic accident and our condolences go out to her family, friends and the Wilmington community.”
The statement also said, “there needs to be a full understanding of, and accountability for, the events that caused the death of Ms. Sausville.
In a statement of their own, the Board of Selectmen said they would “demand answers from the MBTA as to why safety features at the North Wilmington crossing reportedly did not activate and assurance from the MBTA that procedures are in place to maintain operability of the crossing arms and lights at their rail crossing.”
At a public meeting a few days later, the selectmen continued the discussion into the tragic accident; first, by remembering the victim through a moment of silence, and then by questioning the MBTA. Member Judy O’Connell pointed out how her board asked the MBTA to provide an attendant at the train station for extra coverage; however, she said no one was present two days after the accident when O’Connell stopped by several times.
She called the MBTA’s response “unacceptable.”
Following up on that, chair Lilia Maselli said during a meeting with the MBTA, and Sen. Tarr, Rep. Robertson, and Town Manager Jeff Hull, she asked for an MBTA representative to be present in the bungalow from Monday through Wednesday (of the week following the accident) to give residents a sense of comfort. The MBTA, though, couldn’t make that promise.
The board, in the immediate aftermath, assured the family of Sausville they had the same questions the family did and would seek out the answers. Over the past several months, the selectmen brought this topic up at their public meetings and attempted to gather more information from the MBTA. The town’s local politicians including Rep. Robertson and Sen. Tarr also made attempts to both find out the root cause of the problem and make sure it never happens again.
As Sen. Tarr said just a few days after the accident, the town’s delegation remains focused on making sure the system is operating appropriately now. Although there hasn’t been another tragic accident, it’s not accurate to say everything is back on track.
Since the incident on Jan. 21, many other incidents occurred in Wilmington involving train gates not operating properly. On Feb. 18 at 12:19 a.m., a caller on Middlesex Avenue reported that the arms of the crossing gates at the tracks were down for several minutes without a train coming through. Keolis arrived and placed the gates upright. They remained and continued working on the gates for the remainder of the day.
On Feb. 26 at 1:31 p.m., a resident on Kilmarnock Street notified police the railroad gates were down but no train passed through. As Keolis and police arrived on scene, a train began to pass; however, a passerby alerted police that the gates were down for 10 minutes prior to the train’s arrival.
On March 4 at 6:30 p.m., a caller stated the railroad gates on Glen Road were flashing and had been down for eight minutes. Keolis arrived and suggested work on Concord Street caused the problem. Two days later, a caller on Salem Street said the door to the electrical panel on the back of the railroad gate was open.
On March 13 at 4:30 a.m., a caller on Glen Road stated he sat at the tracks for five minutes while the lights flashed and the gates were down; however, no train passed. Two days later, at 1:36 p.m., a caller on Glen Road reported the gates were down with lights and bells activated, but with no train in sight. Once Keolis arrived, they discovered the heat was left on in the control box during the night and the room overheated the following day.
On March 16 at 2:29 a.m., a caller on Salem Street reported another issue with the gates coming down but no train passing through. This time, both Keolis and the MBTA police responded. Later that day, at 11:28 a.m., reports came out about more gates stuck in the down position, this time on Woburn and Kilmarnock streets. Keolis said the problem on Kilmarnock involved a blown fuse.
On March 17 at 1:46 p.m., police received a report of one train gate stuck in the down position and alarms sounding on Main Street with no train in sight. Upon arrival of police, an Amtrak train came speeding through. Another train also passed and both arms lowered and alarms activated correctly.
That makes nine (reported) incidents in Wilmington over the past two months where the train gates and alarm system malfunctioned either through human error or by some other means. However, the most dangerous incident (not counting the one that claimed the life of Sausville) actually occurred before the Jan. 21 accident.
On Nov. 11, 2021 at 6:17 p.m., a caller on Glen Road reported she drove over the nearby tracks when a train almost hit her due to the fact the gate never went down and the lights never flashed, with the only indication of an oncoming train being its screeching brakes. The MBTA, in response, said the gates are only supposed to come down after the train comes to a stop.
That explanation makes little sense, as typically gates lower and lights flash as a train approaches the station or the intersection. This means the MBTA and Keolis knew or were aware of issues involving malfunctioning gates prior to the death of a Wilmington resident (though the two incidents occurred in separate parts of town).
Selectman unhappy with MBTA response (of lack thereof)
Since the tragedy occurred in January, the board took time out of many of its public meetings to discuss the MBTA’s response. Back in February, Maselli expressed disappointment in a lack of communication and notification from the MBTA to residents assuring them the error was fixed.
The MBTA said they would increase training and update the employee manual for testing, but the town sought further corrective action that would make a bigger impact.
Selectman Greg Bendel assured residents safety was their number one priority, saying, “people need to know they can feel safe when crossing over.”
Selectman Gary DePalma felt confident in knowing Sen. Tarr and Rep. Robertson were working to get the best outcome.
“I believe our town delegation can throw enough weight around to get this thing resolved,” he said.
The board also acknowledged similar issues occurred outside of Wilmington. Rep. Robertson said this leads to a lack of public trust in the MBTA, even as the organization says their railroad crossings are safe.
Two weeks later, the board voted to send a letter of their sentiments and dissatisfaction to the MBTA as part of their efforts to improve safety at the railroad crossings. Town Manager Jeff Hull told the board he didn’t feel the level of attention this merits was being provided. He added how it’s disconcerting to see the question of whether someone can cross Wilmington’s railroads safely still exists.
While the board appreciated the efforts of the town’s delegation, they felt more needs to be done. Bendel acknowledged the tragedy wasn’t unique to Wilmington, as he pointed out similar incidents in Waltham and Littleton where a train struck a vehicle. On top of that, he noted the different mechanical issues with the railroad crossings.
Earlier this month, with more documented issues involving train gates and alarms, the board intensified its efforts to seek answers and solutions. They reached out to MBTA General Manager Poftak who continuously advised state and local officials of the ongoing gate repairs and the preliminary analysis of the cause.
Reports from MBTA field technicians point to a pooling of road-salt saturated water on the sensor equipment as the source of the problem. However, the board continues to demand an MBTA delegation come before town government and the public that consists of both policy and technical experts to address concerns of any nature.
Both Sen. Tarr and Rep. Robertson acknowledged “working on this issue literally every day” but as more and more issues arise, Rep. Robertson said, “time is of the absolute essence.”
Just this week, in a Letter to the Editor, the town manager put the blame for the railroad crossing issues squarely on the MBTA. He wrote about his “frustration with the lack of responsiveness to the accident that claimed the life of a Wilmington resident and to the many subsequent irregularities with respect to the grade crossing gates and lights.”
He continued, noting, “(Poftak) and his management team are keenly aware that town officials are not satisfied with the operations of rail crossings in Wilmington and their response to them and (we) will not relent in our demand for answers that improve the performance of the rail crossing warning devices.”
So far, the MBTA seems intent on focusing on the “human element” of the railroad crossing testing process. Keolis said they retrained signal maintainers and are instituting new steps in their protocols to ensure public safety.
As part of the new protocols, now when a signal test is complete, the commuter rail dispatchers must request and receive affirmation from the signal maintainer that the protection systems enabled. Following completion of the dispatcher/signal maintainers communication, the signal maintainer must remain on site until the next scheduled train passes to ensure the safety system is fully operational.
The signal maintainer must also be prepared to manually control the safety system if it does not perform properly.
Poftak released a statement, writing, “I’d like to assure the community that the protection system at the Middlesex Avenue railroad crossing is safe and fully operational.”
For their part, Wilmington’s delegation said about the new procedures, “we welcome the implementation of these important steps to prevent any similar accidents from occurring in the future…we encourage the MBTA and Keolis to continue to explore and act on every possible avenue to make the system more immune to human error.”
(Material from Heather Burns and Lizzy Hill was used to compile this report.)