Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety

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.

Shared Responsibility
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.

The Highway Trust Fund provides dedicated federal funding to improve crossing safety through the Section 130 program. Under SAFETEA-LU, Congress has increased the funding level for Section 130 apportionments from $155 million to $220 million through 2009. Typically, states use most of this dedicated funding to install automated or active warning devices, at crossings previously equipped only with advance warning roadway signs. Some of the other improvements that are eligible for this funding include the installation of new signage, pavement markings and crossing surfaces. Over several decades, the Section 130 program has provided billions of dollars for crossing safety yielding significant reductions in the number of crossing collisions.

In addition to the investment noted above, long-term improvements in crossing safety are attributed to many different efforts. The issuance and application of new regulations, engineering advances and enhancements, wide-ranging public education and awareness efforts, as well as strategic law enforcement activities have all made positive contributions. While it has proven difficult to precisely quantify the effects of each of these efforts, there is little doubt that they have helped to bring about an increased level of safety. This article will look some of the steps that the USDOT has taken, and is currently undertaking, to help prevent and reduce the occurrence of highway-rail crossing collisions.

FRA has issued several regulations since the early 1990s that directly address safety at crossings. FRA regulations requiring railroads to perform periodic maintenance, inspection and testing of automatic or active warning devices (i.e. flashing lights and gates) promote the reliability of these systems that provide an indication to highway users and pedestrians that a train is approaching. The federal requirement that locomotives operating over crossings at a speed of 20 mph or greater be equipped with auxiliary alerting lights — two lights in addition to the headlight, forming and operating in a triangular pattern, has enhanced the visibility of approaching trains, aiding motorists in making sound driving judgments and decisions. Freight cars and locomotives are now being equipped with mandatory retro-reflective material in order to increase rail equipment conspicuity at night or during low-light situations.

The application of reflective material is intended to prevent and reduce instances of vehicles hitting standing or moving trains that are occupying a crossing. An astonishing 25 percent of all highway-rail crossing collisions involve motor vehicles striking trains. Finally, FRA now requires that trains approaching public crossings provide a recognizable audible warning starting at a point 15 to 20 seconds from the crossing and continuously until the train occupies the crossing. This rule also provides a mechanism for local public authorities to establish quiet zones which typically require the use of additional safety treatments at the crossings to compensate for the absence of the critical audible warning provided by locomotive horns or whistles.

Risk Reduction
While the installation of flashing lights and gates reduces the likelihood of a collision by 75 percent, it does not eliminate them. Approximately 50 percent of all highway-rail crossing collisions occur at crossings that are equipped with functioning automatic warning devices. Since the deployment of these devices does not necessarily prevent all crossing collisions, FRA and its departmental partners are pursuing alternative means and innovative methods to improve their effectiveness. The use of traffic channelization devices or medians in advance of a gated crossing makes it much more difficult for a motorist to circumnavigate lowered gates. Traffic channelization devices or traffic separators typically consist of a raised curb made of plastic or recycled rubber and are equipped with reflectorized vertical panels or tubes that clearly demarcate lanes of traffic, and are generally installed down the centerline of the roadway. Medians are usually constructed with concrete curbs and may be of varying widths to satisfy roadway geometry requirements or limitations. On average, such treatments reduce the number of motorist violations by an additional 75 percent. Medians and channelization devices are relatively low-cost treatments, (installations typically run about $15,000) but their effectiveness in deterring errant motorists is potentially invaluable.

Enforcement Effective but Underutilized
The fact that collisions continue to occur at crossings equipped with automated warning devices also points to the need for aggressive and sustained enforcement of existing motor vehicle traffic safety laws. Motorists’ compliance with such laws is perhaps the single most important means of avoiding collisions with trains, and effective enforcement can be a major deterrent to habitual violators who may face fines and or imprisonment. While penalties for crossing violations vary considerably by jurisdiction, even the minimum fines or consequences can effectively dissuade repeat offenders, as well as witnesses and bystanders. Unfortunately, state and local law enforcement agencies are either unaware of the importance and efficacy of such activities, or simply don’t have the resources to implement them in any meaningful way given other demands and priorities.

Some jurisdictions have successfully used automatic photographic or video enforcement technology at crossings, which have also been found to significantly reduce the number of violations. Utilizing photo enforcement technology, though, may require the enactment of an authorizing state law to specifically enable and permit use of such systems for this purpose. Successful efforts have included a well-publicized rollout and initial “grace period,” followed by actual operational use in which fines are imposed and collected.

Innovative Engineering
Another engineering treatment that is rising in popularity is the use of four quadrant gate systems. These installations add another pair of gates to the conventional gated crossing. This results in a crossing that has gates blocking all lanes of traffic on both sides of the crossing making it extremely difficult for a motorist to circumvent them in an attempt to beat an approaching train. Four quadrant gates may be used where there is insufficient physical space for the installation of traffic channelization devices due to nearby highway intersections or driveways. Many communities seeking to establish quiet zones have opted to use four quadrant gate systems despite their relative high cost, because their demonstrated effectiveness in preventing train-vehicle collisions is appreciable. On highly used passenger or commuter lines, the use of these treatments is increasingly popular as they help mitigate and offset the additional risk to railroad passengers posed by potential collisions.

One of the perceived drawbacks of these systems has been the fear that motorists may be trapped by gates that have lowered both in front and behind their vehicle. Most of the installations that are currently in-place, use vehicle presence detection sensors to ensure that the exit gates are not lowered if a vehicle is on the crossing. Once the vehicle no longer occupies the crossing, the exit gates will lower. Four quadrant gates have been found to improve safety by reducing violations by 92 percent. While the cost of this type of installation is considerably higher than a standard two-gate system, the improved safety benefit is appreciable.

Crossing Closure
When considering crossing improvements along a rail line, it is important to evaluate whether crossing closure or consolidation is feasible. In many areas there are multiple crossings in close proximity that provide access to the same area and are in effect redundant. Oftentimes, not all of these crossings have automatic warning devices. Strong consideration should be given to closing some of the crossings, thus reducing exposure and risk. Closing crossings that do not have automatic warning devices and rerouting vehicles to crossings that do is a highly effective way to improve safety and a cost-efficient way of leveraging scarce financial resources.

Corridor Planning
Another successful way to improve crossing safety has been to employ a corridor approach. Stated simply, instead of making improvements on a piecemeal basis at individual crossings, examining and evaluating risk at all of the crossings along a given corridor allows transportation planners to realize efficiencies in hazard-mitigation. For example, the state of North Carolina is widely lauded for its highly successful “Sealed Corridor” initiative along a designated high-speed rail corridor. A number of different crossing treatments, including crossing closures, traffic channelization devices, four quadrant gates and others, have been used at every crossing along the corridor, a precursor to prospective high-speed rail passenger service. A recent study by the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center estimates that this approach has saved five lives during a five-year period. Another sealed corridor initiative is currently underway in Los Angeles, Calif., on one of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority’s Metrolink commuter rail lines.

Public Education and Awareness
Educational efforts are perhaps the most critically important component of the crossing safety paradigm. The USDOT is a strong supporter of Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI) and currently provides approximately $1.77 million in fiscal year 2007. OLI and its 4,000 volunteer presenters provide free crossing safety and trespass prevention presentations to diverse audiences including primary and secondary school students, general audiences comprised of drivers of all ages, commercial truckers, agricultural audiences and others.

Specialized training such as Grade Crossing Collision Investigation (GCCI) courses are offered to law enforcement personnel as are Officer on the Train events, which allow police to witness firsthand motorist violations in order to spearhead enforcement blitzes. This past year, FMCSA, working in coordination with FRA and OLI, developed a safety visor card that contains vital information to commercial motor vehicle drivers about safety at crossings. Approximately 250,000 cards are being distributed so that motor carrier operators have knowledge of and ready access to information on how to safely approach, navigate and traverse crossings. Large commercial vehicles confront and pose unusual challenges in transiting crossings, often far from home on roads that drivers are unfamiliar with.

Private Crossings
As previously mentioned, there has been a 49 percent decrease in crossing collisions since 1990. However, the number of incidents at private crossings has declined by only 14 percent. Most states do not have any regulatory authority over private crossings and there is very little governmental oversight that deals specifically with safety at these locations. Currently FRA is conducting a nationwide safety inquiry that is addressing the challenges posed by private crossings, which will complement FRA’s ongoing comprehensive efforts to improve safety at public crossings.

FRA has conducted four public meetings across the nation to gather input from interested parties on the subject. Meetings were conducted in Fort Snelling, Minn., (Minneapolis area), Raleigh, N.C., New Orleans, La., and San Francisco, Calif. A fifth meeting is scheduled for July in Syracuse, N.Y., where FRA will discuss what it has learned thus far and outline possible steps that may be taken to improve safety at private crossings.

Representatives from railroads, state departments of transportation and regulatory agencies, rail unions and users of private crossings have participated in meetings thus far.

Some of the issues that have been raised include: the lack of uniform signage; lack of data on the physical and operating characteristics; the many different types of access to private property such crossings provide; liability issues; and funding for improvements. FRA welcomes participation in this inquiry and will accept comments electronically through the USDOT’s online docket system at http://dms.dot.gov (Docket number 23281).

Research Efforts
FRA is also actively involved in several ongoing research efforts that are aimed at improving crossing safety. Many locomotives are now equipped with digital video cameras that record routine operations. These recordings provide a wealth of factual information about what happens during grade crossing collisions and many near-collision events. These video recordings provide a unique opportunity to learn more about what actions may lead to a collision. FRA has provided a grant of about $500,000 to the North Carolina DOT and Norfolk Southern Railway to determine how this information can best be analyzed. This will enable better educational efforts to target specific driver behaviors and will help to target crossings that experience a large number of near collisions so that engineering improvements may be made at those locations.

FRA and FHWA are working on projects that are targeted to reduce the number of collisions that occur when a vehicle is hung-up, or high-centered on a crossing. These events occur when a vehicle, typically towing a trailer with low ground clearance, goes over a crossing that has a vertical curve, sometimes referred to as a humped crossing. The problem is three fold. One, crossings that have a vertical curve must be identified and the profile of the vertical curve must be captured. Two, the ground clearance and the wheelbase of the vehicle must be known. And three, it must be determined whether the vehicle’s ground clearance and the crossing’s vertical profile will result in the truck being hung-up on the crossing.

FRA is testing a laser device that gathers information about the vertical profile of crossings. This device can be mounted on a hi-rail vehicle or other equipment and would be able to scan and capture vertical measurements as it moves down the track. If use of the device proves to be feasible, it will enable vertical profile measurements to be gathered much more quickly and efficiently than the current manual methods utilizing conventional survey measurements. The long-term goal of the project is to construct a database that contains profile information which could be used by transportation planners or fleet managers in determining the safest route for trucks or other specialized vehicles.

Meanwhile, FHWA has been conducting research on the feasibility of using in-pavement devices that would measure the ground clearance and wheelbase of vehicles. If this technology works, then such information could be easily obtained so that the driver of the vehicle would know the exact configuration of the vehicle. If the crossing profile and the vehicle configuration are known, it will then be possible to determine whether the vehicle will become hung-up at a crossing. Information captured by this means would also prove invaluable in determining optimal routes for particular types of vehicles.

Challenges Remaining
This article has focused on some of the activities of the USDOT in addressing highway-rail grade crossing safety. It must be understood that the improvements that have been realized are the result of the efforts of many different parties. Railroads, rail labor organizations, state agencies, the rail supply industry, researchers, law enforcement and many other groups have made important contributions. Continued cooperation and effort by all parties will be needed to bring about further improvements so collisions between trains and motor vehicles can be averted.

A person is 20 times more likely to be fatally injured in a collision between a train and car than when involved in a collision between two cars.

Anticipated increases in commuter rail, light rail and transit operations alone will certainly impact the level of exposure underlying train-vehicle collisions. These operations will undoubtedly involve more and longer trains, operating at higher speeds over the same tracks and through the same crossings. Passengers on these trains often travel to rail stations by motor vehicle, and parking near the stations often requires those motorists to cross tracks. It is therefore important to consider the presence of at-grade crossings when assessing the safety of existing and new rail transit operations. Planners and managers of transit operations should look closely at the experience of conventional rail operations, and use the lessons learned to prevent needless collisions and casualties. FRA stands prepared to work with the mass transit community.

Ronald Ries is staff director for the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety & Trespass Prevention Division, Office of Safety at the Federal Railroad Administration.