USDOT Presses States, Localities, Railroads to Improve Track Crossing Safety

AASHTO Journal, 6 March 2015

In the wake of two deadly accidents last month in which roadway vehicles on commuter rail tracks resulted in train crashes, the Federal Railroad Administration unveiled a strategy of initially pressing for tougher local law enforcement and then pushing for upgrades to grade crossing safety systems.

That second phase puts the emphasis on state and local governments to determine what warning systems they need for roadway traffic crossing train tracks, and install them, while railroads are required to maintain them.

The FRA said part of its push will involve seeking more funds for safety measures, beyond the more than $287.9 million a year the federal government now provides states to help enhance safety at public grade crossings.

“Recent accidents in New York and California are important reminders of our shared challenge to both educate the public about grade crossing safety, and to enforce appropriate behavior around railroad operations,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

On Feb. 24, a Metrolink commuter train crashed into a pickup truck and trailer on the tracks at Oxnard, Calif., injuring 30 when four passenger cars and the locomotive derailed. The train engineer later died from his injuries.

Three weeks earlier, on Feb. 6, a Metro-North commuter train struck an SUV that was on its tracks near Vahalla, N.Y., leaving six dead and at least a dozen reportedly injured.

In the first phase of its new effort, the USDOT is urging local law enforcement agencies “to show a greater presence at grade crossings, issue citations to drivers that violate rules of the road at crossings and consider rapid implementation of best practices for grade crossing safety.”

Under the next phase, the FRA will promote “smarter uses of technology,” work to increase public safety awareness at grade crossings – including distracted driving – improve signage, work in closer partnership with states and local safety agencies, and call for new funding for greater safety at grade crossings.

Foxx described the size of the challenge. “Grade crossing and trespassing accidents are serious challenges to maintaining public safety,” he said. “Every three hours of every day, someone is hit by a train in the United States and we must do all we can to heighten public awareness, strengthen enforcement efforts and pioneer new technologies to better secure public safety.”

Operation Lifesaver, an organization whose mission is to reduce and ultimately end collisions at road-track crossings, reports 251 people died in 2013 and 929 were injured in 2,087 collisions between trains and vehicles at grade crossings. That is up from 232 deaths in 2012, but the long-term trend shows a nearly steady reduction in numbers of annual collisions, injuries and deaths.

Operation Lifesaver President Joyce Rose issued a list of safety tips for roadway drivers at grade crossings after the Oxnard accident, including advice to always expect a train when approaching a crossing and to proceed through it “only if you are sure you can completely clear it without stopping.”

Acting FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said “while the overall number of deaths and injuries from grade crossing incidents has come down significantly over the last two decades, this remains a serious problem. We can and should be doing everything we possibly can to keep drivers, pedestrians, and train crews and passengers safe at grade crossings.”

The FRA said there are 250,711 public and private roadway grade crossings of railroad tracks in the nation, and about 51 percent are public-at-grade crossings. But just half of all those public crossings have automatic-warning systems and only a third have flashing lights and gates.

The safest crossing is “grade separated,” meaning road vehicle and pedestrian traffic is routed above or below tracks so they don’t intermingle; about 15 percent of all track crossings are grade separated, the agency said.

The FRA announcement put the emphasis on states and local governments. “States and localities have traditionally played the most significant role in determining the type of warning system present at grade crossings, with most system decisions determined by traffic levels,” the FRA said. “Upgrades to existing grade crossings are also the responsibility of states and local communities.”

The agency also listed the 10 states with the most grade crossing accidents in fiscal 2014 – Texas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Ohio, Florida and Tennessee.

It added that railroads are responsible under federal law and regulations for inspecting, testing, and maintaining highway-rail grade crossings.

The FRA said its own role is to issue and enforce crossing safety regulations, issue guidance on best practices and conduct research on ways to improve safety. Feinberg said as part of this new effort her agency “will take a fresh look at our grade crossing programs and activities.”

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