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.
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.