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.
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.
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.
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.