By Chris Maza
LONGMEADOW – On March 14, 2017, Department of Public Works foreman Warren Cowles went out to plow during a Nor’easter and never came home.
While clearing snow at the railroad crossing at Tina Lane, an Amtrak train struck his truck and he was killed. There was no warning for Cowles. No flashing lights. No bells. No barriers.
On a chilly morning on Nov. 15, Cowles’ sister Cindy stood in front of new signals at the crossing flanked by family as well as town, state and federal officials, raised up her hands and declared, “We did it!”
Since losing her brother in the tragic accident, Cindy Cowles made it her mission to ensure that no one else suffers a similar fate in Longmeadow.
“It should have been done a long time ago. My brother would still be here if it was. He meant the world to us and to me and there’s just really no reason that this should have happened,” she told the Longmeadow News. “We can’t bring him back, but I could do this. [Family members] are all happy that I’ve stepped up and saw this through and got quick results. They knew if anyone was going to get it, it was going to be me.”
Select Board Chair Marie Angelides said Cindy Cowles and the Cowles family were behind the Select Board throughout the process “making sure this ball did not drop.” She added while state Rep. Brian Ashe and state Sen. Eric Lesser pushed for signals, the effort finally gained steam when Sen. Ed Markey got involved on the federal level.
“This was a very complicated project. It seems simple, but it was complicated because there was an overlap in ownership and oversight,” Lesser said. “In those kinds of cases, it can become very complicated to figure out who is responsible.”
Markey explained before any of the work to build the signals could be done, Amtrak had to confirm the crossing was public, approve a design and construction plan and contribute a portion of the cost. The end result was a state and local partnership through which the state government provided $700,000 and Amtrak covered the remainder of the cost.
“For Longmeadow, I am proud that I was able to help lead the effort to address the safety issue at this particular crossing,” he said. “That’s why right after the death, I worked with Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren and Congressman [Richard] Neal to get Amtrak to show leadership.”
Officials noted that Warren Cowles’ death was not the first to occur at the crossing, which is located in close proximity to the leaf dump and the Fannie Stebbins Wildlife Refuge. “There are residents who use this and used to use it all the time. Using this crossing before we had these protections was always a risk,” DPW Director Mario Mazza said.
The discussion of signals at the site first began in 1981 when two 25-year-old women were killed when a train struck their car. Seven collisions and five fatalities have been recorded at the crossing over several decades, making it the deadliest rail crossing in Massachusetts. Markey added that 33 percent of all rail-related fatalities occur at unsignaled crossings like the one at Tina Lane. Cindy Cowles noted had action been taken after any of the previous incidents, her brother would still be alive.
Mazza said his department was grateful the necessary actions were taken to improve safety for the public and his employees.
“We maintain this and we plow it so having this here will avoid another event like before,” he said. “I have always said the silent arm of public safety is the DPW. You see fire, you see police – they’re very visible and they’re doing heroic things. But they can’t get there without us. Without us doing what they have to do, a lot of that work doesn’t get done.”