The driver of a Honda Element did the right thing by stopping at a red light Wednesday afternoon on Excelsior Boulevard in Hopkins, yet unwittingly violated the law and was in harm’s way.

The driver stopped in the wrong spot, sandwiched between a left-turning traffic crossing in front and a 125-ton locomotive behind, which barely missed the rear bumper as it passed by.

The driver was in “No Man’s Land,” said Sgt. Mike Glassberg of the Hopkins Police Department. It’s a common occurrence at a complex intersection where three streets, Excelsior, Jackson Avenue and Milwaukee Street, converge in front of the Cargill headquarters. Adding to the difficult layout are train tracks that slice right down the middle.

Over the past two years, trains have hit two vehicles that stopped on or too close to the tracks at the intersection, and there have been many near misses, Glassberg said.

Signs and a line painted on the pavement indicate where motorists on Excelsior are supposed to stop for red lights or when blinking crossing arms come down. But it’s not intuitive, as both are set a ways back from a crosswalk at the corner, which logically looks like the place motorists should stop. Consequently, drivers stop too far forward and get caught between the crossing arms and the crosswalk. Trains come by and clip their vehicles. Cars have been totaled, but by luck “we have not had any injuries or deaths,” Glassberg said.

Last Wednesday, Hopkins and railroad police were out to keep it that way. They ran an engine back and forth for a few hours and pulled over drivers who stopped beyond the crossing arms rather than behind. At other places, such as at 5th Avenue, drivers have been spotted going around crossing arms trying to beat trains.

“You are putting your life at risk when you do those things,” said Sheryl Cummings of Operation Lifesavers, a nonprofit whose mission is to prevent tragedies on tracks and railroad property. “We are appreciative they are educating the public by raising awareness.”

That was the point of Wednesday’s enforcement. No tickets were issued, but drivers did get a lesson on railroad crossing safety. A few were even handed key chains that read “See Tracks, Think Trains.”

Last year, 232 people were killed in rail-crossing crashes, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Engineer Gaylen Johnson has hit 10 vehicles in other spots during 30 years with the Twin Cities & Western Railroad. At times at the Excelsior crossing, he’s been able to stop in time — quite a feat since trains can take up to a half-mile to stop — and actually walk up to drivers and wave them off the tracks.

“They don’t realize how dangerous it is,” Johnson said. “You are helpless. I have a bell and a whistle. That is all I can do. Hitting a car is like your car running over a pop can [a 6,000-to-1 weight ratio], you won’t win.”

Confusion isn’t the reason for the ongoing problem in Hopkins. Driver inattention and impatience play huge roles, too, Johnson and Glassberg say.

On Wednesday, one engine didn’t create long delays. But with as many as four trains rolling through the west metro suburb each day and with extra traffic on Excelsior due to construction on Hwy. 169 and on city streets, police fear “people might chance it if they see a long train.” That’s why they used the campaign to remind drivers that they must stop as soon as signal crossing lights start flashing.

 

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.