I took this picture on Sunday, March 16, 1969, from the rear car of a Norfolk and Western Railway train headed toward Centralia, where it connected, after a 50-minute ride, with a mainline train to St. Louis. We’d just crossed Brown Station Road, and the highway on the left was Route B. Columbia was about a month away from losing its last passenger-rail connection with the world that, over the years, had been whittled down to two round-trip runs per day.
Railroad-grade crossings with increasingly traveled streets such as Brown Station Road were marred from time to time by vehicular collisions, some of them serious or even deadly. At the time, the population of Columbia was just shy of 55,000, and suburban development was just beginning. The city was legally annexing territory and was about to conclude its greatest acquisition and enlargement of all time.
Fast forward some 15 years to the mid-1980s, when planning was under way for the Highway 63 bypass around Columbia’s north side, where the juxtaposition with the grade crossing of the city-owned Centralia branch line railroad — rechristened COLT — presented a very real obstacle.
In what’s been billed as the only railway-grade crossing on an interstate-grade superhighway, officials took the easiest and least costly path and whistled past a graveyard of possible problems, hoping that the crossing would remain safe and rather benign.
It hasn’t, of course, as incidents over the past few years have demonstrated.
So now there’s a push to do what should have been done to begin with. This means separating the two conflicting modes of transportation in what’s called a grade-separation project.
Things are getting interesting, maybe even far-fetched. The solutions range from building a highway overpass above the tracks to adding a lane on the road in order to shift mandatory-stop vehicles, such as school busses and hazardous-material carriers, away from the main flows of high-speed traffic. I’ve heard no mention of what seems to be the most obvious and practical solution: burrowing Highway 63 under the railway line.
The winner here, in any case, is the railway line because these ways-of-iron occupy a rather sacrosanct position in the conflict with the highway, due to the laws of physics and to how the roadbed is configured.
Trains, out of necessity, operate on a relatively level right-of-way with only minimal vertical rises and falls in elevation as a percentage of the distance traveled. For example, right-of-way engineers will speak of a 3-percent grade, meaning a rise of three feet for every 100 feet traveled on the rails.
Because of this, one can envision the ambitious, gently-graded structure that would be needed to carry the city-owned railroad over the busy highway with approaches extending a thousand feet or more in either direction. This would be a huge public works project that would cost millions of dollars.
What seems more practical to me is to push Highway 63 under the COLT line while maintaining the railroad’s existing grade. Recalling that the rail line’s right-of-way was curved and relocated when its intersection with the bypass was configured leaves me wondering whether there isn’t a creative way to straighten the line and burrow the highway under it.
One thing is abundantly clear. It will be necessary to separate the highway from the rail line because this troubled intersection will only get worse. Highway 63 will only grow in importance, as it sooner or later becomes part of a ring-road around the city. We should also plan for the continued development of Columbia’s only railway link and the inevitability of dual track, electrification and high-speed passenger trains as the COLT becomes an even greater part of the city’s transportation infrastructure.