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From the archives | Small towns fear next wreck

Officials in some small S.C. towns and cities worry the next big train wreck will happen in their communities if electronic warning systems aren't installed.

"We've never had any accidents, but it only takes one," said James Williams, mayor of Ridgeville in Dorchester County.

Williams has known for some time that the Norfolk Southern track that runs through his town doesn't have a warning system. He added that his town of about 1,800 has several plants that could be affected by a major wreck.

Williams, who has been mayor since April, said he once discussed the warning system issue with railroad workers.

"I asked them how they communicate," he said. "They said, 'Through a dispatcher in Greenville.' I said, 'That's not too much protection.'"

Norfolk's speed limit for trains on the stretch of track through Ridgeville is 49 mph. But Williams said the railroad voluntarily lowers the speed to 15 mph during the town's annual Labor Day festival.

Williams isn't the only one concerned.

Sandra Harrelson, longtime town clerk of Varnville in Hampton County, said railroad tracks in that town go by homes, Town Hall and Hampton Regional Medical Center.

"It would be a major disaster if it happened here," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of the cars would go through some houses because they are so close to the tracks."

But Newberry Mayor Edward Kyzer said he isn't concerned that trains run up to 49 mph through his city of 11,000. Track there does not have a warning system. Most is owned by CSX, though a small section is owned by Norfolk.

"They clear it out quicker so the (auto) traffic can move along," he said.

Kyzer said he doubts a wreck like the one that killed nine people Jan. 6, 2005, in Graniteville could occur in his city because the railroads have removed side tracks and dual rails, which helps prevent collisions with other trains.

Union Mayor Bruce Morgan doesn't believe his city of about 8,400 is at high risk for an accident, either. The Norfolk Southern track that runs through Union does not have electronic warning systems. But, Morgan said, a Norfolk maintenance crew based in the city does a "pretty fair job" of maintaining the tracks.

Morgan said he would support a warning system in his city, but he understands the railroad has to consider the cost.

"If you have one wreck every 20 years, is it worth spending millions of dollars?"

Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484 or rbrundrett@thestate.com

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