There are other things you can do as a system to help your operators have a safe trip.
In Houston, we have partnered with the city of Houston to experiment with types of traffic signal timing programs to allow trains to get through the downtown area quicker and safer. We are currently using a “queue jumping” program that gets trains through an intersection before automobile traffic. Automobile traffic traveling the same direction as the train gets a brief red traffic light while the train goes through the intersection, while traffic traveling the opposite direction of the train get a green traffic signal. Since most of our left turns in front of the train are from cars traveling the same direction as the train, we stop them with a red traffic light while allowing cars traveling the opposite direction to proceed through an intersection on a green light.
Another consideration is a four-way red signal. In San Diego and Houston, there are several intersections which were identified as higher risk than others. When traffic signals were changed to an all-red phase when trains went through the intersection accidents reduced significantly.
Signs around rail lines can be confusing. Again in San Diego, they found that the conventional round railroad crossing sign was ignored when it was placed around downtown streets where trains crossed at grade (street running).
When the traditional railroad sign was replaced with a sign that had a graphic of a light-rail vehicle on it, people understood that and used caution crossing the intersection. Conversely, they found the traditional railroad crossing (crossbuck) sign painted on the street approaching an intersection where trains crossed did make motorists stop and look for trains.
By putting up the light-rail vehicle warning sign and painting crossbucks on the street, drivers figured out that the light-rail system was going to cross in front of them on a downtown street.
Look at how visible signs are for cars approaching a crossing or intersection. There may be trees, signs, banners, new construction or a variety of other things blocking what was once a clearly visible sign. If your grade crossing sign is just one of many signs directing motorists, you can pretty much bet that none of those signs got a good look.
Traffic signal timing and visibility can also be big issues. There are intersections that normally come up in a series of green lights, or platoon-type “rolling” signals. Intersections where trains cross usually are excluded from a particular pattern when trains are present. In other words, you may be driving through a series of green traffic lights and not know that the intersection where trains cross will not go green for you as the others did because a train is getting ready to cross that intersection. This can cause drivers to expect a green light to come up when it is not going to, or look down to the following intersection and go on the green light that comes up there. If the traffic signals at the next intersection are louvered, drivers are less likely to anticipate a green light, or go on a green light that is not for them.
At intersections where no turns are permitted across tracks, consider using a green arrow instead of a green ball traffic light. We found that taking away drivers’ options and giving them direction helps reduce accidents. If the green arrow directs them to go straight through an intersection, they are less likely to make a turn.
Houston has been experimenting with in-pavement lighting at intersections where light rail vehicles cross. In cooperation with FHWA, Metro has installed red flashing lights in the pavement along the stop bar at several intersections in the central business district. The red in-pavement lights illuminate when the traffic signal is red, giving drivers extra warning at rail intersections. When the test is complete, the FHWA will evaluate their effectiveness and consider it for national use.