— by Walter Weart
Freight and passenger railroads continue to investigate any and all opportunities to improve grade crossing safety, from employing the latest construction methods to installing new technology to working on more effective ways to educate the public. Yet, more investigative work is needed to prevent crossing accidents and incidents.
"Although federal, state and railroad dollars continue to be spent to upgrade and install new active grade crossing traffic control warning devices, we continue to experience incidents at the railroad/highway interface," said Norfolk Southern Railway Assistant Vice President of Communication and Signals Ray Rumsey in an email. "The use of improved technology, ongoing efforts for grade crossing closures, coupled with public education and appropriate law enforcement, need to be pursued in our efforts to enhance public awareness at grade crossings."
In short: Making the safety grade at crossings requires a multi-pronged approach.
During the information-gathering process for Progressive Railroading's 14th annual grade crossing update, a cross-section of freight and passenger railroads shared some of the work they've done in recent months to improve safety at crossings. A few also discussed what they plan to do in the year ahead.
Their responses — gleaned from interviews and email replies — follow.
Crossing Upgrades and Stand-bys
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has 90 crossings on its commuter-rail lines and another 40 on its light-rail line. Some of the crossing-related technology already in place continues to perform as intended.
"We have been using full depth or 'tub' crossings, and those that were installed 15 years ago are still in excellent condition," said Acting Assistant Chief Engineer of Track Tony Bohara.
Unlike conventional concrete panels that fit on top of ties, tub crossings don't sit on ties. The rails are attached directly to the precast concrete modules, which eliminate the use of ties and ballast.
But SEPTA also is adopting new technology.
"We are upgrading signage, upgrading flashers by going to 10-inch from the 8-inch size where we can, depending on the size of the lamp housing, and converting from bulbs to LEDs, as well as installing new reflective highway gate arms," said Chief Engineering Officer of Communications and Signals Mike Monastero.
In addition, SEPTA is upgrading event recorders that can be monitored from a central location. On its light-rail routes, the agency is using "highway type" traffic signals in place of conventional warning signals.
"The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices from the Federal Highway Administration has allowed this change," Monastero said. "We are also incorporating our devices into the highway signals with priority for the light-rail train."
SEPTA also is pushing ahead on the crossing education front. "We are using the 'Hand' and 'Man' pedestrian signs to warn of approaching light-rail trains and 'Second Train Coming' warning signs, as well as loud speakers, to make both visual and audio announcements to further enhance crossing safety," Monastero said.
For the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA), safety-improvement efforts revolve around the nearly 60 crossings along its 70-mile system. The current program includes crossing replacements on the Blue Line light-rail corridor with "standard concrete panels that provide a much better running surface for vehicles," said Executive Officer of Wayside Systems Michael Harris-Gifford, adding that 20 had been replaced as of late 2012.
LACMTA also has installed four-quadrant gates at many crossings to prevent drivers from entering a crossing when a train is approaching.
"In connection with the Blue Line, we are working with the Union Pacific, the California Public Utilities Commission and local governments to review all the crossings and propose improvements to enhance the safety for both automotive traffic and pedestrians," Harris-Gifford said.
Among the enhancements: new left-turn warning signs and improved street lighting.
"On our newer lines, we have been able to incorporate the capability to inform the operator that the crossing equipment is functioning and that gates are down," Harris-Gifford said.
Given the frequency of LACMTA trains, gate mechanism durability is an area of concern, he added.
Grade Crossing Projects In Southern California
Officials at the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) continue to pursue crossing safety improvements, as well. Metrolink operates seven lines and 300 track miles that include 288 public and private crossings, as well as a number of pedestrian crossings, including 13 pedestrian-only crossings. Metrolink also retains trackage rights to UP and BNSF Railway Co. lines.
"While we would prefer separation or closure, we have developed a set of recommended practices for grade crossings," said Director of Engineering and Construction Bill Doran.
The "recommended" list includes four-quadrant gates, median strips, pedestrian gates and, where appropriate, "channels" with traffic light advance preemption systems, Doran said.
On the crossing construction front, Metrolink is "standardizing" concrete panels on wood ties but also considering composite ties at crossings, Doran said. Even in California's dry climate, water under crossing panels can cause wood ties to rot.
"We're also standardizing 12-foot flasher lights, and while many are equipped with LEDs [light-emitting diode lamps], some still use incandescent bulbs," Doran said.
The California Transportation Commission recently approved $7.8 million for improvements at five Metrolink crossings. The work includes roadway widening, and the installation of new automatic vehicle exit gates, sidewalks, handrails, automatic pedestrian gates and traffic signal advance preemption technology.
Crossing upgrades also are on tap for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, which operates 97 miles of track between Santa Fe and Belen. Rail Runner's lines feature about 120 public and private crossings.
The crossing improvements include replacing a number of wood and rubber crossing surfaces with concrete and new track panels along with new gate mechanisms," said Operations Manager Robert Gonzales.
These include two exit gates at Valentin and Molina, where crossings will be equipped with four-quadrant gates. Rail Runner also has installed concrete crossings and track panels at Gabaldon and Courthouse roads, and at Tribal Road 40 "while closing Tribal Road 84 to improve safety and sight lines," Gonzales said.
Other projects include the installation of LED lights at Menaul Boulevard, replacing old gate mechanisms at Ranchitos Road and installing pedestrian path gates at Alameda Boulevard.
Future plans call for installing new crossing controllers and equipment at crossings, two of which will be closed. Rail Runner officials also will continue to evaluate the need to replace aging gate mechanisms and service batteries, and to perform LED light upgrades, Gonzales said.
Meanwhile, officials at the North Carolina Railroad Co. (NCRR) continue to work closely with an array of partners — from railroads to transportation officials to a state university — to make crossings safer. The railroad recently partnered with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to design and construct a pedestrian underpass beneath NCRR's mainline. The project is part of a campus expansion that, when complete, will create a "mixed-use village" featuring retail shops, a recreation center and new housing for 1,400 students, said NCRR President Scott Saylor in an email.
The railroad also has implemented a grade crossing improvement program in eastern North Carolina, where the focus is on 32 crossings with either partial or no signals. NCRR is upgrading existing active warning devices and replacing existing passive warning devices in the area, Saylor said. Where feasible, median barriers also are being installed.
NCRR plans to continue working with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), NS and Charlotte Area Transit System to install new technology or eliminate crossings. For example, NCRR and NS are jointly working on 11 grade separations that will result in the elimination of 23 public crossings and improvements to nine additional crossings, Saylor said. Several private crossings also will be eliminated.
Other work on NCRR's docket includes a grade separation project at Sugar Creek Road in Charlotte; a grade separation and realignment at Hopson Road in the Research Triangle Park near Durham; and crossing improvements in Johnston and Carteret counties.
Grade Crossing Closures in Class I Country
In Class I country, improving safety at crossings remains a top priority, too."We continue to use microprocessor technology, and we are also installing constant warning time technology where practical, based on the crossing, design and traffic," said BNSF Railway Co. Director of Public Projects and Field Engineering Lyn Hartley.
For the past 10 years, BNSF has been installing health monitoring equipment at all new and upgraded crossings, he said. And when it comes to crossing materials, concrete panels are the Class I's preferred option, although the railroad uses rubber or timber when and where appropriate.
Meanwhile, BNSF continues to pursue what Hartley terms an "aggressive grade crossing closure program," adding that 5,500 crossings have been closed since 2000.
"We continue to evaluate for more possible closures," he said.
One locale that's already been evaluated: Lincoln, Neb., which is "actively planning" to eliminate two crossings at a cost of $65 million, Hartley said. Fifty to 60 BNSF trains traverse the crossings daily. There's also heavy vehicle automobile traffic across them. Between them, the crossings have 1 million daily "interactions," Hartley said. "These two crossings are ideal candidates for separation," he added.
NS has identified its share of ideal candidates, as well. The Class I is working with several states and local communities to identify crossings that would benefit from warning device modifications and closures.
"Norfolk Southern has current agreements in place with various state road authorities to begin modifications to key corridors in 2013 and future years," Rumsey said.
The railroad also installed or upgraded about 300 actively signalized crossing locations in 2012, Rumsey said. Work ranged from upgrading a location from eight-inch to 12-inch lamps to installing four-quadrant gates.
"Motion sensor technology is being replaced with constant warning time systems," Rumsey said. "Some advantages of the newer technology are improved self-diagnostic tools, health monitoring and improved event logging."
Last year, NS was contacted by several communities to help establish quiet zones. A Federal Railroad Administration train-horn rule issued in 2004 enables local governments to establish quiet zones at designated public crossings. To create a zone, a municipality must add gates, wayside horns and/or lights at a crossing.
"Crossing modifications can include but are not limited to the installation of a basic 'power out' indicator, constant warning time, channelization and/or four quadrant gates," Rumsey said. "Norfolk Southern reiterates the importance for communities to get the railroad involved early in the quiet zone planning process so that the communities can have a realistic ballpark estimate formulated specifically for the crossings in the proposed quiet zones."
This year, NS officials plan to continue partnering with states and suppliers as new technology becomes available.
"In 2013, we may test the use of radar technology for vehicle detection at select grade crossings in North Carolina — a first on the NS system," Rumsey said.
A similarly comprehensive approach is in place at CSX Transportation: "We have begun installing new reflective post and crossbucks which now have reflective material on both the front and back," said Jim Beyerl, Engineering Standards II, Engineering Department, Wayside. The Class I also is replacing emergency notification signs at crossings.
CSXT continues to push the education envelope, aiming to raise crossing safety awareness within specific demographic groups.
"We have co-sponsored a NASCAR entry to reach out to 18- to 34-[year-old] males and have received positive feedback," said Director of Community Affairs and Safety Cliff Stayton, adding that the railroad also recently used Operation Lifesaver Inc. presentations to educate truck drivers at truck stops.
Grade Crossing Upgrades at the Wheeling & Lake Erie
Regional railroads, too, are actively upgrading their crossings. Witness the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Co. (W&LE). Including trackage rights, the 576-mile regional totals 840 miles dotted with more than 600 crossings. "We are doing some upgrades with flashers replacing crossbucks and flashers with gates," said Signal and Communications Superintendent Dan Reinsel, adding that the railroad is transitioning from rubber panels to concrete panels.
W&LE also has installed a few tub crossings, primarily at locations with a "very high vehicle count," and has spent "significant funds" to improve train detection circuitry at numerous sites, Reinsel said.
"Whenever a rail improvement program has occurred, the traditional DC track circuitry has been upgraded to constant warning devices," he said. "This has allowed us to eliminate insulated joints by the hundreds and reduce the number of required relays. The costs associated with maintaining the track joints and testing those relays is eliminated forever."
W&LE officials also continue to work with state and local authorities to boost crossing safety. In Ohio, they recently reviewed numerous crossings, identifying five in Canton that could be improved or closed.
"We worked with the Ohio Rail Development Commission [ORDC] and the city of Canton, putting together a plan to address the results of the study," Reinsel said.
The final plan included: circuitry improvements to provide the necessary pre-emption timing at five locations; conversion of two streets from one-way to two-way automotive traffic; correction to the placement of warning devices at five crossings previously converted to one way; closure of the Elm Court crossing; installation of gates and flashers at 10 crossings that previously were "flashers only" crossings; replacement of gates; and surface work at two locations.
In Navarre, Ohio, two crossings will be closed, and two crossbuck-only crossings will be upgraded to include gates and flashers, Reinsel said. And in Twinsburg, Ohio, W&LE worked with local and state officials to install new gates and lights at four crossings; an upgrade at a fifth is scheduled for spring 2013.
In April 2012, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) approved construction authorization from the ORDC for W&LE to install flashing lights and roadway gates at grade crossings at the Kohler Road crossing in Sugar Creek Township in Wayne County. The project, which will be completed this April, was funded by PUCO, ORDC and W&LE. In October 2012, PUCO also approved construction authorization from the ORDC to install mast-mounted flashing lights and roadway gates at the Allen Avenue SE crossing in Stark County. The federally funded project is scheduled to be completed by July.
"When finished, the crossings will have a fully upgraded assembly that should require little maintenance over the years while providing the proper warning to the traveling public," Reinsel said.
That's the aim of all crossing improvement projects and programs.
The $3.2 Billion Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program includes 25 grade separation projects. Here's an update on a few CREATE projects.
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