The wait is interminable, sitting in an idling vehicle, in line with other idling vehicles, while a monstrous, slow train chugs by. The wait--several times a day--has vexed motorists and Manassas officials alike for years. But hope arrived last week in the form of new crossing gates that promise to whittle away a bit of the wait.
Norfolk Southern installed the new $125,000 warning gates that descend 30 seconds before a train arrives at the Nokesville, Fairview and Wellington roads and Wakeman Drive crossings.
Roger Snyder, the city's community development director, said the old gates came down too early, trying the patience of drivers, who would often chance fate and attempt to drive around the gates.
"We don't know how many accidents there have been, but it's a trouble spot and dangerous for people to try and get around the gates when they think a train isn't coming," Snyder said.
Snyder said the problem most people had with the old gates was that they had to be preset for the fastest train, the Amtrak that travels through at almost 70 miles per hour. When that train would scream by, the gates closed with only a 30-second lead time--the minimum margin of safety. But because the majority of the trains traversing the city are much slower, often traveling at just 30 mph, the gates would be down for minutes before the train would even appear. The new technology will detect the speed of an approaching train and release the gates 30 seconds before it arrives at the crossing.
Gus Bankieris, managing highway crossing signal engineer for Norfolk Southern, said the new predictor technology installed in Manassas is technically superior to earlier models and will help with the traffic backups.
"It has the capability to determine the speed of the train. It's a minicomputer, basically, and we can program the warning times into it," Bankieris said. "It will always be constant."
Snyder pointed to the amount of time motorists would save with the new system, which, "over the long haul, can add up to a lot." The number of vehicles that travel on the four roads show the time-saving potential of the system, Snyder said. At Nokesville Road, more than 15,000 vehicles pass each day; Wellington Road carries more than 12,000 vehicles; and Fairview Avenue, 8,000 to 10,000. Snyder did not know how much traffic passes on Wakeman Drive every day.
"Whether people even notice or not," Snyder said, "the time not spent waiting will really begin to add up and soon they'll notice the difference."
The new system was purchased with grants secured by state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-District 29) and Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-District 50) and a 10 percent match from Norfolk Southern.