- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - The driver of a school bus that stalled on the railroad tracks leaped out moments before it was destroyed by a freight train. No children were aboard and the driver survived unscathed, but she was shaken up, and the train’s engineer and conductor were even more affected, officials said Friday.

“They thought they hit a bus that was possibly filled with kids,” Maricopa Police spokesman Ricardo Alvarado said.

The crossing of the Union Pacific railway and State Route 347 has long posed safety hazards as local traffic, motorists headed back and forth to San Diego and dozens of trains come through each day. Plans call for a bridge to carry motorists over the tracks instead.

“This overpass cannot come fast enough,” Mayor Christian Price posted on Facebook.

The federal government last month awarded a $15 million grant to Arizona to replace the Maricopa crossing with an overpass.

The project has an estimated total cost of about $54 million. City officials say the state has committed to pay for much of that amount but that they’re still need to work out some aspects of the project’s financing and scheduling.

Alvarado said police were still investigating circumstances of the accident but that initial reports indicated the bus driver tried to restart her stalled northbound bus but couldn’t before the crossing gates lowered as the westbound freight train approached.

Another motorist reportedly yelled at the driver to get off the bus, and she did before the train hit the bus broadside, Alvarado said.

Meanwhile, the crew of the mile-long freight train couldn’t stop it in time to avoid the impact.

The bus driver was agitated but the train’s engineer and conductor appeared immediately after the accident to be even more shaken up, Alvarado said.

Once it was known that the bus wasn’t carrying children, “they were somewhat relieved. (But) they were still traumatized by hitting the school bus,” he said.

Union Pacific spokesman Francisco Castillo Jr. said the railroad offers peer counseling to train crews involved in accidents.

“It’s (with) other conductors and engineers who have gone through this same experience in their career,” Castillo said.

While the crash destroyed the bus, the train’s lead locomotive wasn’t damaged, and the train departed with a new crew about two hours after the accident, Castillo said.

No additional information was immediately available about the bus driver. Maricopa Unified School District Superintendent Steve Chestnut and other school officials did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.


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