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January 2012



Communication and Signal Article
Railroad safety: At grade crossings, the collaboration continues



Communication and Signal

Compiled by the Progressive Railroading Staff

For the rail realm, improving safety at grade crossings is a study in collaboration. Often, state and local authorities are in on it, and so are the feds — on the funding front, if nowhere else. Freight railroads and passenger-rail agencies also rely on suppliers to provide them with more efficient and effective products and systems.

For our 13th annual grade-crossing update, the Progressive Railroading staff contacted a cross-section of North American freight railroads and passenger-rail agencies. We asked:

  • What have you done during the past six to nine months to improve safety at grade crossings?
  • Have you invested in or implemented new technology and/or replaced tried-and-true devices with other models?
  • What are you planning to do in a grade-crossing product/technology context in 2012? Any projects or upgrades on the horizon?

Edited portions of their emailed responses follow.

In November 2011, construction began on one of the largest crossing-improvement projects currently under way in the United States. Scheduled for completion in 2014, the $208 million Colton Crossing project in southern California involves elevating two east-west Union Pacific Railroad tracks over two north-south BNSF Railway Co. tracks, which now cross at street level. BNSF, UP, Amtrak and Metrolink trains pass through the intersection.

As many as 135 freight and passenger trains use Colton Crossing daily, which creates "significant noise and air quality issues" for area residents, said Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez in a prepared statement. The grade separation project is designed to help ease those issues, as well as prevent derailments. In addition, BNSF's and UP's transit times will be shortened as they move freight to and from southern California ports. Project funding includes state and federal dollars, plus contributions from BNSF and UP. In February 2010, the project received a $33.8 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. In May 2010, the California Transportation Commission approved $91 million in funding from the California Proposition 1B Trade Corridor Improvement Fund.

The Colton Crossing project is but one of many grade crossing efforts under way in the Golden State. Witness the work on Metrolink's docket.

As of press time, Metrolink and the Orange County Transportation Authority were putting the finishing touches on the Orange County Grade Crossing Safety program, which includes improving 52 crossings in the cities of Anaheim, Dana Point, Fullerton, Irvine, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Orange and Tustin.

Work began in fourth-quarter 2009 and includes installing: vehicle exit gates; pedestrian warning devices, such as lights, flashers and gates; pedestrian channelization to direct people where to cross; median islands that restrict vehicles from going around gates; and advanced signal pre-emption to interconnect the railroad signal system and traffic signal system to clear the crossing before a train arrives. Now, the cities will be able to apply for a quiet zone under the Federal Railroad Administration's final train horn rule.

State Of Collaboration

Metrolink also has 11 grade separation projects under way, including the design phase for the Empire Avenue grade separation. A component of the Interstate 5 High-Occupancy Vehicle and widening project overseen by the California Department of Transportation, the project calls for elevating the railroad for a 2.2-mile stretch. The grade separation will be double tracked, and there's a provision for a future third track. The railroad portion of the project, which will cost $102 million, includes constructing a 7,500-foot single-track shoofly; constructing an elevated retained railroad embankment with capacity; constructing new railroad bridges over Buena Vista and Empire Avenue; closing the San Fernando Road underpass; and constructing new permanent main track and a 7,500-foot siding.

Similarly comprehensive — and collaborative — programs are under way in other states.

In 2011, the North Carolina Department of Transportation's (NCDOT) Rail Division completed a number of crossing safety improvements. The projects were part of NCDOT's statewide program to enhance highway safety by improving signals and gates at public crossings. Projects included a $186,590 installation of crossing signals and gates at a Norfolk Southern Railway crossing in Morehead City; and a $151,749 installation of signals and gates at an Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway Co. crossing in Mt. Gilead.

Federal dollars funded 90 percent of the projects' cost; the rest came from the state, NCDOT officials said.

Deterring 'Risky Behavior'

Also last year, North Carolina Railroad Co. (NCRR) continued to work in partnership with NCDOT and NS on the Eastern Grade Crossing Project, which began in 2006 and should be complete in 2012, said NCRR President Scott Saylor in an email. So far, gates and signals have been added to more than 30 crossings in five counties in eastern North Carolina on the NCRR, which has provided more than $2 million for the project, he said.

In late 2011, NCDOT officials held public hearings on a study that evaluated 18 crossings for future improvements in Durham. In December, the agency solicited public input on the design of proposed track and rail crossing improvements between Salisbury and Kannapolis. The 11-mile stretch of second track is part of the Raleigh-to-Charlotte Piedmont improvement program and is proposed along the NCRR and NS.

The proposed construction would enable passenger and freight trains to move around each other more easily, and would provide track that can support trains traveling at higher speeds, NCDOT officials said in a prepared statement.

"Additionally, replacing selected railroad crossings with new bridges built either over or under the road, and improving or removing other crossings, will reduce the risk of vehicle/train collisions, improve safety for vehicle and rail passengers, reduce vehicle and train traffic congestion and reduce train horn noise," they said.

In Minnesota, crossing improvement work continues at a Minneapolis-area transit agency. Metro Transit operates the Northstar commuter-rail line, which runs from Minneapolis to Big Lake; and the Hiawatha light-rail line in Minneapolis/Bloomington.

During second-quarter 2012, pedestrian gate-arm protection will be installed at two stations served by Northstar, which shares BNSF track with freight and Amtrak operations. To deter "risky behavior," BNSF plans to install and maintain gate arms and lights that will lower across the sidewalk, said Metro Transit spokesperson Robert Gibbons in an email. The $250,000 project will be funded with dollars that remain in a contingency account created when the Northstar line was constructed, said Gibbons.

In 2008, Metro Transit began upgrading gate-arm motors on the Hiawatha line, replacing Invensys Rail's S40 models with S60 equipment, said Gibbons. The S60s, with electronic circuitry, offer "greater reliability in an operating environment with more than 220 gate-arm activations each weekday," Gibbons said. In 2011, Metro Transit began replacing 13 gate-arm motors at five intersections. The agency expects to finish installing the new motors later this year.

Metro Transit also installed microwave train detectors at key un-gated crossings in the city of Bloomington. The microwave equipment, supplied by Banner Engineering Corp., replaces both micro-loop detectors and sonic equipment, which were "found to be less reliable, especially in adverse weather," said Gibbons.

In the Sunshine State, Florida East Coast Railway L.L.C. (FEC) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) have worked together to develop standards to improve crossing safety, said FEC Chief Engineer Bob Stevens in an email. Each year, the FEC averages 24 crossing signal projects as part of local road widening and occasionally new construction, he said.

All the railroad's public crossings along its 351-mile mainline between Jacksonville and Miami are equipped with automatic warning devices, consisting of a minimum of flashing lights, bells and gates. In some heavily populated Florida cities, the existence of multi-lane crossings with high-vehicle counts has required the installation of cantilevers and additional gates.

FEC also has adopted light-emitting diode (LED) lighting for all crossing signal construction and rehabilitations.

"Our standard also includes upgrades to the train detection circuits through the addition of CWT [Constant Warning Time] devices to replace aging motion detectors," said Stevens. "This has provided a more consistent warning time in areas where there are trains of varying speeds or switching movements within the crossing approach."

Raising The Bar In Florida

Standards also have been raised for crossing gate arms. New gates now require high-intensity reflective striping to enhance visibility. Older arms are being replaced with all crossing-signal projects or when they are damaged, Stevens said.

FEC, FDOT and local municipalities also have introduced "cohabitation of traffic signals and railroad flashing lights on the railroad cantilevers where practical," he added.

"This has improved the visual effect of both the railroad flashing lights on the railroad traffic signals by reducing sight conflicts, which can occur with the more traditional installations," said Stevens.

Collaboration in a crossing context is something of a tradition at the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co. (IHB). During the past two decades, the IHB has worked with officials in Illinois and Indiana to upgrade crossing warning systems for technology and safety purposes, said Phil Buckingham, IHB's general inspector-communications and signals.

After it fulfills commitments to Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program projects in Illinois and a large yard construction project through the first half of 2012, the railroad again will work with state and local officials to upgrade crossings in the two states, he said in an email.

With the 2012 completion of four projects, which now are in preliminary design, all IHB mainline crossings in Illinois will be equipped either with the Invensys Model 3000 GCP [Grade Crossing Predictor] or 4000 GCP controls with LED warning lights and later editions of the Invensys Model S gate mechanism line, said Buckingham.

Also on IHB's 2012 docket: an Indiana corridor project that involves the replacement of four crossing warning systems — which are more than 30 years old — with 3000 GCP and 4000 GCP models, new gates and cantilevers. The project is designed to eliminate long gate-down times caused by older style control systems, Buckingham said. Beyond 2012, IHB officials plan to upgrade secondary crossings in Illinois, and mainline and secondary crossings in Indiana. They'll also continue to test new technology, he said.

Crossing That Bridge In 2012

Other railroads also plan to do their share of testing and implementing this year.

At Kansas City Southern (KCS), a crossbuck renewal sign program designed to upgrade signs according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration's 2009 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices is nearing completion. The program includes "Stop" or "Yield" signs and new emergency signs at all passive public crossings, said Doniele Carlson, KCS' assistant vice president of corporate communications and public affairs, in an email. The Class I also has been installing crossbucks with stop signs and emergency signs at all private crossings. In addition, the railroad is continuing its flasher/gate program, which is driven by state departments of transportation, as well as corridor projects in Mississippi, Louisiana and Missouri. To date, 103 flasher/gate projects incorporating LED lights have been completed, and 36 public crossings have been eliminated, she said.

North of Gulfport, Miss., KCS is involved in the first phase of a project that includes flasher and gate upgrades and the signalization of about 25 more crossings, Carlson said.

"The steel, ties and road bed will be completed [in 2012] with all new grade crossing surfaces being installed between Gulfport and Hattiesburg, Miss.," she said.

Also in 2012, KCS plans to install constant warning devices and gates with LED lights as well as other safety features at a private, heavy-haul crossing.

"These features include more flashing LED lights, video recording equipment and lighted advance warning signs activated before the lights and gates," she said. "This crossing is a composite crossing, and will be evaluated under extreme heavy load conditions. KCS is also evaluating this composite material at several public at-grade crossings."

Out With The Old In New York

In New York, agencies are employing a variety of strategies this year as they attempt to make the safety grade at crossings. In 2012, MTA Long Island Rail Road plans to:

  • continue to replace lead acid batteries with Nicad batteries (supplied by Saft);
  • continue to install gate keepers (supplied by General Signals Inc.) to reduce broken gates;
  • continue to upgrade flashing lights from incandescent to LED (supplied by GE Lighting Solutions);
  • install advance traffic preemption at several crossings as part of a New York State Department of Transportation project (designed by HNTB);
  • relocate or replace gate mechanisms as part of several road widening projects;
  • install center road medians at one crossing to improve traffic/pedestrian flow (medians will feature gate mechanisms to allow for reduced gate arm length); and
  • launch design work on a project to replace and upgrade 37 crossings, in addition to a new signal system, on the Montauk Branch from Speonk to Montauk as part of a positive train control-related project (AECOM is conducting the design work). The project is scheduled to be completed in 2015.

At MTA Metro-North Railroad, "major upgrades" are planned on the New Haven Line's 24-mile Danbury Branch this year, said Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders via email. All crossings will be upgraded to "newer style train detection equipment from [Invensys], including PSO 4000s and GCP 4000s," she said, adding that "Ansaldo Model 95 gates will be added to some crossings that previously had no gates."

In addition, the crossings will be "tied into" a newly designed signal system featuring Alstom's VPI and Genrakode equipment, she said.

Meanwhile, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) this year plans to upgrade four crossings in Shaker Heights, Ohio, along the Blue and Green light-rail lines. Work includes replacing the track and track bed with a "precast concrete panel system that the track clips into," according to an agency email. GCRTA also plans to repair the approaching roadways on either side of the crossings, and replace sidewalks and "ADA ramps" within the crossing area.

The agency also plans to conduct design work for four additional crossing projects.



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