It is the telephone call that every railroad operating official hates to receive and the radio call that train crews fear that they may have to make on every trip — the report of a highway-rail grade crossing collision. Unfortunately, on average, several such calls are placed every day somewhere across the United States.
The occupants of the motor vehicle involved in such collisions often sustain life-threatening injuries. Train crew members are sometimes injured as well and are ‘forced’ to witness the event, while being effectively powerless to prevent it. Some locomotive engineers or conductors suffer from post-traumatic stress long after such an event occurs, and a few never return to work as a result. If the collision involves a passenger or commuter train, passengers aboard may suffer injuries. If the collision results in a derailment of a freight train, there is a chance that hazardous material being hauled could be released affecting an entire community. And, of course, there are the family and friends of victims who suffer as well when a loved one is injured or killed.
Crossing collisions also cause other impacts that are not readily apparent. Both highway and railroad freight and passenger traffic are invariably disrupted while emergency services respond to the incident and law enforcement officers conduct an on-site accident investigation. Not only is the train involved delayed, but others many miles away may be held while the track is being cleared. Adjacent highway-rail crossings may be blocked by the train involved in the collision, further impeding commerce and mobility for both private and commercial vehicles which must sit in traffic or seek alternate routes if they exist. In rare circumstances, where fire or the risk of a potential release of hazmat commodities is present, precautionary evacuations may be ordered and highways shut down.
Highway-rail grade crossing collisions are clearly something to be avoided and are by and large preventable. Over the past several decades, great strides have been made in reducing the number of these collisions due to the efforts of federal, state and local governments, railroads, labor organizations, Operation Lifesaver Inc. a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing crossing collisions and trespassing casualties, and other safety partners. Since 1990, the number of crossing collisions has been reduced by 49 percent and the number of fatalities resulting from such events has declined by 48 percent. Unfortunately, such collisions still occur with alarming regularity. Last year there were 2,910 such collisions nationwide resulting in 366 fatalities and 1,005 injuries.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA), has made significant contributions to improving crossing safety. The USDOT realizes that crossing safety will continue to be an area that demands our collective attention. Freight and passenger train traffic continues to increase. Highway traffic will also continue to increase dramatically over the coming years. These increases will provide more opportunities for conflicts at highway-rail crossings and highlight the importance of taking additional steps to improve crossing safety.
In 2004, the USDOT issued the Secretary of Transportation’s Action Plan for Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention, a blueprint to guide the Department’s efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of crossing collisions and casualties. The plan builds upon the original action plan originally issued in 1994. The Action Plan is designed to be flexible and is divided into nine general subject areas, containing goals, objectives and specific action items. The Action Plan is a living document that allows us to adapt to new challenges and embrace new methods. A copy of the Action Plan may be found on FRA’s Web site at www.fra.dot.gov.