Fatal South Dakota train crash highlights lack of railroad crossing safety
Data show that of the 1,869 total crossings in South Dakota, two-thirds (66%) are marked only by crossbuck signs. Roughly 1 in 10 crossings has no safety marker or signal.
Jodi Kuipers learned the hard way how much time, work and determination it takes to get safety improvements made at a railroad crossing in South Dakota, even at the site of a tragedy that took the lives of two of her closest family members.
Driven first by sorrow and then by anger, Kuipers went on a mission to have lights and safety gates installed at a railroad crossing south of Harrisburg. Her twin sister and niece were killed there on Dec. 7, 2022, when an oncoming train struck the pickup they were riding in.
Roughly two-thirds of the nearly 2,000 railroad crossings in South Dakota are marked only by signposts with “railroad crossing” crossbucks. That’s the case on the gravel road where the accident occurred, a popular shortcut to avoid urban traffic in the fast-growing area of southern Sioux Falls.
The crash killed front-seat passenger Jennifer Torgerson, 45, and her 12-year-old daughter, Kaylee Torgerson. Phil Torgerson, the driver of the truck who was Jennifer’s husband and Kaylee’s father, suffered serious injuries but survived. It happened less than a mile from their home.
In the days and weeks after the accident, Kuipers, 45, contacted numerous local, state and federal officials as well as representatives of BNSF, the railroad company whose train struck the Torgersons.
Through countless calls and emails, Kuipers kept a detailed spreadsheet with a timeline of her requests and responses received. Kuipers said she was initially met with bad news — that money wasn’t available for improvements and that any safety changes could take years.
But earlier this year, Kuipers was told by state officials that an expedited safety review had been done and funding was approved to add signal lights and safety gates in late 2023 or early 2024. A yellow sign with blinking lights has been erected at the crossing as a temporary warning.
“It was pretty difficult to get anyone to talk to me at first,” Kuipers told News Watch. “When I started these conversations, I made it known that I was not backing down. I was going to call everyone, and they knew that this small-town girl wasn’t going to shut her mouth.”
Data from the Federal Railroad Administration show that of the 1,869 total crossings in South Dakota, two-thirds (66%) are marked only by crossbuck signs. Roughly 1 in 10 crossings has no safety marker or signal. Of the remainder, 214 (11%) have flashing lights, 134 (7%) have safety gates and 112 (6%) have stop signs. In many cases, railroad crossings on gravel roads are marked only by static crossbuck signs on roads where speed limits are 55 mph.
It’s not only rural areas that lack active safety measures. Of the 90 crossings in and around Sioux Falls, 43 are marked only by crossbuck signs, and in the Rapid City area, eight of the 37 crossings are marked only by crossbucks, according to the FRA.
In March, South Dakota was one of 12 states to receive part of a $231,000 investment in railroad safety public information campaigns by Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit group that works to prevent railroad crossing accidents.
Federal data show that South Dakota had 121 train-versus-vehicle accidents from 2012-2022, including eight fatalities and 38 injuries. Nationally, 273 people were killed and another 769 injured in the 2,178 train-vehicle accidents in 2022, FRA data show.
Rail industry officials point out that railroad crossing collisions fell by 39% between 2000 and 2020, and that ultimately drivers are mainly responsible for avoiding accidents.
“Because trains often require more than a mile to stop and they cannot deviate from their course, safety at grade crossings is primarily the motorist’s responsibility,” Lena Kent, BNSF director of public affairs.
Brace Prouty, a South Dakota DOT safety engineer, said the state annually evaluates railroad crossings to prioritize spending on safety improvements, which are supported with federal funds.
State government and railroad companies have been reluctant to spend the money needed to improve safety at railroad crossings, said Robert Kolbe, former Minnehaha County Commissioner.
“You have to embarrass the heck out of them locally,” Kolbe said. “They’ll only comply if there’s something that makes them look bad.”
A News Watch reporter visited the Harrisburg crash site and found that while heading eastbound on 274th Street, a home and trees block the vision of the train tracks on the north.
Meanwhile, a westbound motorist — like Phil Torgerson on the fatal day — also faces a sight line obscured by trees on the south and by a berm on the north. The tracks on the north also curve just before the crossing.
According to the South Dakota Highway Patrol, the Torgerson accident occurred at 4:43 p.m., when the sun would potentially blind a driver. All occupants of the pickup were wearing seat belts, and neither alcohol nor drugs was a factor in the crash.
During her quest for safety, Kuipers said she was amazed by the support she and the Torgerson family received from community members and some government officials.
Kuipers, who lives in Platte, spoke to her brother-in-law recently and he remains in deep mourning but is slowly recovering. Kuipers said he told her he did not see the oncoming train until the last moment before impact.
Kuipers is suffering her own individual sense of loss because she and her sister were very close and her niece was a happy child active in competitive cheer.
The losses still hurt but have also motivated Kuipers to push harder for railroad crossing safety.
“It’s not just another sibling; it was the person I shared my room with and my birthdays with,” she said. “They were both really great people, but we don’t get a choice in this because it’s all in God’s hands. But if it means at the end of the day I have to fight so no other family has to go through this, then it’s all worth it.”
— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.