This story was updated to include statements from the South Dakota Department of Transportation and BNSF received after the story was first published.
HARRISBURG, S.D. (KELO) – Yet another vehicle and train collision has occurred on 274th Street south of Harrisburg. The drivers in the recent Monday accident were not injured, but the same cannot be said about the mother and daughter who died at the same railroad crossing in December.
On December 7, 2022, Phil Torgerson was traveling west on 274th Street in a pickup truck with his wife Jen and their 12-year-old daughter Kaylee when the truck collided with a southbound train. Phil survived with serious injuries, but Jen and Kaylee both passed away.
“It’s definitely a little disheartening knowing that another family is going through the same issues at the same intersection,” Jodi Kuipers, Jen’s twin sister, said. “I’m very thankful that there were no tragedies, but it definitely stirs up a lot of those emotions again.”
Their deaths sparked a community effort, led by Kuipers, to get proper warning signs, lights and gates around the railroad crossing to prevent more accidents. However, these warning signals can’t be installed without approval from the city council, the South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) and BNSF Railways.
Shortly after the Torgerson’s accident, supporters of “Kaylee’s Crusade for Change” began messaging state, county and local officials to try and implement safety measures near the railroad tracks.
“It’s a dangerous spot on the road and with Harrisburg getting as big and as busy as it is, they really need to protect their citizens,” Kuipers said.
The City of Harrisburg has since entered into an agreement with the DOT to have crossing arms and lights installed along the intersection. According to an email response from the SD DOT media coordinator Julie Stevenson received on Wednesday, the progress of those safety measures being installed is up to BNSF Railways, the company that owns the portion of the track on 274th Street.
In an email statement to KELOLAND News on Thursday, BNSF said the materials for the rail crossings and lights have been ordered and once they receive the equipment, they will be installed. BNSF projects this will be before winter if conditions permit.
To help mitigate risk until then, the city unanimously passed a resolution in February to add light-up railroad crossing signs and yield signs on either end of the intersection. Andrew Pietrus, the Harrisburg City Administrator, said he plans on asking the council to change the yield signs into stop signs.
When asked how effective the temporary signage was for preventing train collisions, Pietrus said he couldn’t be sure, given the recent crash on Monday.
“I’d like to think they’ve brought more attention to the intersection, but between road construction and people taking different routes around town they wouldn’t have normally taken, it’s hard for me to gauge their effectiveness,” Pietrus said.
Kuipers, though, thinks they aren’t enough. Along with the tracks being on a quiet gravel road, a berm, or large raised barrier in the ground, cuts off the view of the tracks, making it hard to see a train coming even with the yield signs.
“I think it’s crucial to get the cross arms out there,” she said. “Unless people see that something’s coming, they have no notice when they get up to that spot. The view is very skewed out there so you don’t have a chance to even see the train before you’re being hit by it.”