HALIFAX, N.C. - There was time enough to warn train dispatchers as a 127-ton tractor-trailer, so big and heavy that it required a special permit and a state trooper escort, tried to negotiate a difficult turn across the tracks.
But there's no indication anyone alerted Amtrak before a passenger train slammed into it in North Carolina on Monday, injuring 55 people.
The truck was pulling an electrical distribution center nearly 16 feet tall and 16 feet wide, built by PCX Corp. in Clayton, N.C., for a customer in New Jersey.
The load stretched for 164 feet - longer than half a football field - and required 13 axles to distribute the truck and load's combined weight of 255,000 pounds, the permit shows.
The tractor-trailer's backroads route required tight squeezes, including the left turn where it got stuck in Halifax, moving over the tracks from one two-lane road to another.
Established protocol requires constant contact between a truck driver, the trooper escort and the train dispatcher when trucks carry oversize cargo across tracks, a former federal railroad regulator said.
But State Highway Patrol spokesman Jeff Gordon said drivers, not troopers, are responsible for warning off trains.
Amber Keeter, 19, was stuck in traffic in her car with her baby directly behind the tractor-trailer as it tried to make the turn where highways U.S. 301 and N.C. 903 meet.
She said the driver's team and the trooper spent considerable time trying to prepare for the crossing, and then got stuck on the tracks for about eight minutes before the train roared around a curve.
"It was so long they couldn't make the turn," she said.
Protocol calls for troopers escorting trucks to "clear their routes and inform the railroad dispatchers what they're doing," said Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University.
Even if they lose contact, they can reach a dispatcher through toll-free numbers that have been posted at these crossings for decades, he said. "That dispatcher would have immediately put up a red signal for Amtrak and radioed Amtrak to stop," he said.
CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay wouldn't say whether anyone called before the crash. "That's all going to be part of the investigation," she said.
Most people treated at hospitals were released by Tuesday, and about a dozen of the train's 212 passengers had already continued their journey by bus to Richmond, Va., where they could take another train.