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Rail News Home BNSF Railway

January 2010

Rail News: BNSF Railway

Railroads arm grade crossings with better warning devices


By Walter Weart

Millions of motorists, pedestrians and trains cross paths at more than 100,000 U.S. grade crossings each day. To prevent accidents at busy junctures, railroads continue to push the three "E's" — education, enforcement and engineering. Their three-pronged efforts paid off during most of 2009: Through September, total U.S. crossing incidents declined 22.8 percent to 1,379 compared with data from the same 2008 period, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Railroads are seeking ways to further reduce incidents in 2010 and beyond. Although each "E" component remains critical to achieving that goal, they're making strides on the engineering side of the equation.

For example, the Kansas City Southern Railway Co. (KCSR) now uses dual entrance gates at 50 locations to "completely lock down" a crossing entrance where raised medians either exist or can be installed, said Doniele Kane, a spokesperson for KCSR parent Kansas City Southern, in an email.

"Some of these we handle with just two gates, some with two gates on the outside and two standard flashers on the islands, and some with four gates, including two on the outside and two on the islands," she said.

KCSR, which has 2,665 public and 1,799 private crossings on its network, also is installing directional horns and stationary horns at some crossings to provide an audible warning to motorists when a train is approaching. In addition, the Class I is standardizing the installation of light-emitting diode (LED) flashing lights at crossings to improve the lights' "conspicuity," said Kane. LEDs are visible from a greater distance, provide a 100,000-hour life span, reduce energy consumption, and are more shock and vibration resistant.

Late last year, KCSR also began using highway traffic signals instead of traditional flashing lights at one crossing in Louisiana and one in Missouri. So far, the railroad has noted a better response from motorists and more traffic signal compliance, said Kane.

Another part of the railroad's strategy: pursuing corridor projects with state and local agencies. The projects include upgrades to crossing surfaces across a wide area. KCSR installs concrete surface panels when required by a state, but prefers solid timber surfaces because of low maintenance and long service life, said Kane.

The Class I also aims to close crossings where possible to eliminate accident risks. KCSR offers incentives or alternative routes to eliminate the impact of a closure and encourage municipalities to voluntarily close crossings, said Kane.

Closing in

BNSF Railway Co. continues to pursue closures, as well. The Class I, which has 26,000 crossings across its network, closed about 450 crossings in 2009 and has set a similar goal for 2010. Sometime this year, BNSF expects to close its 5,000th crossing since 2000.

As of mid-November, closures and other crossing initiatives helped the railroad reduce its rate of collisions per million train miles to an all-time-best 1.55, says Mark Schulze, BNSF's vice president of safety and operations support.

The installation of positive train control (PTC) will reap additional crossing safety benefits, he says. The PTC system would sound the horn before a train approaches a crossing if an engineer fails to do so, and communicate with a crossing and "tell it to close the gates," says Schulze.

CSX Transportation already is using a communication network to link and monitor new crossings. The crossings are connected to the Class I's network via cellular data units to monitor power and the health of batteries and ground-fault detection equipment.

"With more employee retirements and more new hires on the horizon, this remote monitoring and support capability will help the effectiveness and efficiency of our crossing maintenance efforts," said Bob Hoffman, CSXT's director of strategic projects-C&S, in an email.

The Class I, which has about 30,000 crossings system-wide, also has installed a dozen four-quadrant gates and several pedestrian gates to prevent accidents. In addition, CSXT is attempting to close three crossings for every newly constructed crossing; use more durable concrete surfaces for higher-traffic crossings, and low-maintenance timber and asphalt surfaces for lower-traffic ones; and install LED lights to boost visibility.

In addition to motorists' and pedestrians' safety, signal maintainers' well being is a priority. So, CSXT now uses helical foundations with platforms around crossing signal masts to eliminate the need for a retaining wall and provide adequate space for a maintainer to work on the mast.

"This is a much faster and cheaper method, and improves worker safety," said Ray Sipes, CSXT assistant chief engineer-signal construction, in an email.


The Florida East Coast Railway (FECR), which deals with 481 public crossings and operates in a dense urban corridor in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale region, is trying to boost safety, too. The regional uses roadway island medians to prevent motorists from driving around gates.

FECR also is considering four-quadrant gate installations, "especially in high-population-density areas," says Charles Stone, FECR's general director of engineering services.

To extend surface life by five to eight years, the regional now uses concrete panels when crossings are rebuilt. The panels are supplied by OMNI Products Inc. or manufactured by FECR. Because tropical storms and hurricanes occasionally strike the railroad's line, the regional also has begun to install generator boxes outside of cabinets at busier or rebuilt crossings.

"We can bring a portable generator to the location and restore the operation of the crossing signals much more quickly for the protection of our crews and the safety of drivers," says Stone.

Severe weather also is a factor in the Alaska Railroad Corp.'s (ARRC) crossing upgrade plans. The railroad, which has about 100 crossings along 470 miles of track from Seward to Fairbanks, has worked with Ansaldo STS USA the past six months to determine if remote monitoring of crossing signals would help with equipment maintenance during severe winters. Remote monitoring system hardware arrived last month.

ARRC already uses higher medians at crossings because of Alaska's snowy winters.

"The amount of snowfall we receive would make the typical low median impractical," says ARRC Chief Engineer Tom Brooks.

The railroad also has equipped six crossings with directional horns and added an indicator signal at the crossings to alert an engineer if equipment isn't working. The indicator features a large flashing "X" to verify that a horn is working, says Brooks.

Connecticut crossroads

Meanwhile, Amtrak is relying on four-quadrant gates to help prevent accidents at six Connecticut crossings.

"When we began the electrification project on the Northeast Corridor, which would lead to higher train speeds, the FRA asked that we install four-quadrant gates," says Keith Holt, Amtrak's deputy chief engineer of communications and signals.

The railroad installed six detector loops at each crossing to detect any vehicle in the crossing when the circuit is activated by an approaching train. If a vehicle is detected in the crossing, the exit gate remains raised until the vehicle clears.

Amtrak also worked with GE Transportation to develop a monitoring system for a line between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich., that features about 100 crossings. The system, which works without the type of cab signaling used on the Northeast Corridor, will help Amtrak increase train speed and comply with the new PTC requirements, says Holt.

The system uses radio signals and GPS to monitor every crossing, interlocking and signal in a 60-mile section. An onboard device queries the crossing and determines if active protection equipment is in working order. If equipment is malfunctioning, the engineer is given a signal and required to slow the train.

Another system feature enables a train to "contact" a crossing and communicate train speed, says Holt. Gate timing can be adjusted so gates lower 30 seconds prior to a train's arrival. Amtrak now can operate trains at 95 mph instead of 79 mph, and the railroad has petitioned the FRA for 110 mph operations, says Holt.

Amtrak also continues to use two rubber strips, one on each side of the rail, or asphalt surfaces at crossings.

"We are evaluating concrete crossings and may adopt the standards of one of the Class Is," says Dave Staplin, Amtrak's deputy chief engineering-track, adding that concrete surfaces would be used at high-volume crossings.

High traffic volume also is a top crossing concern for Caltrain, which operates more than 22 miles of track between densely populated San Francisco and San Jose, Calif. The commuter railroad deals with 44 crossings and train densities that reach more than 100 per day.

Caltrain completed 25 crossing projects in 2009 and has eight planned for 2010, says Deputy Director of Engineering Stephen Chao.

The projects involve striping, colored pavement and fencing designed to keep pedestrians off rights of way; center concrete medians to prevent motorists from driving around gates; and roadway reflective markers, he says.

More money for upgrades

Last month, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's board authorized $5.8 million for Caltrain to upgrade several crossings. Proceeds will cover modifications to crossing gates, and the installation of guard rails, fencing, pedestrian gates, emergency swing gates and warning panels.

The swing gates are fence-type gates designed to swing open and away from the track area and close automatically to prevent a pedestrian from being trapped on a right of way.

Caltrain also continues to use a system designed to control gate activity and allow gates to remain open while a train is stopped at a station. In addition, the railroad is evaluating the use of "advanced pre-emption of highway traffic signals" during rush hours at five crossings to adjust signals according to motorist traffic levels, says Chao.

MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), which has 295 crossings, is seeking more ways to prevent accidents, too.

"One step we've taken was to devise a box which encloses the horn on our M7 cars," says Frank LoPresti, LIRR's general manager-fleet engineering. "This not only reduces the sound levels from the side, but focuses the sound towards the crossing."

Keeping gate arms intact

The railroad also has replaced about 40 percent of its crossing lights with LEDs and installed "gate keepers," or spring-loaded hinges that enable the gate arm to move in the same direction as a vehicle instead of breaking off. Gate keepers have reduced broken-gate replacement by 50 percent, says Steve Diana, an engineer in the FRA/LIRR testing and inspection-signal department.

LIRR officials consider signage a critical safety element, as well. The railroad recently installed "second train" signs at a station where the parking lot location creates heavy pedestrian activity.

In addition, LIRR recently installed a solar-powered flashing stop sign at a private crossing. Supplied by Campbell Technology Corp., the sign will enhance motorists' awareness and operate as long as two weeks without being recharged, says Diana.

Fellow MTA property Metro-North Railroad is seeking a similar awareness boost at 41 crossings. The railroad is replacing all incandescent flasher lights with LEDs to increase visibility.

In addition, Metro-North worked with the New York State Department of Transportation last year to upgrade a Harlem Line crossing that registered a high number of incidents and featured steep approaches that occasionally caused low-riding trucks to get stuck in the crossing, said Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders in an email. The parties re-profiled the crossing and installed improved striping, reflective lane delineators, additional street lighting and easier-to-read signs.

An internal review of the crossing's accidents led to system-wide changes in signage and police procedures, said Anders.

Signs now provide a toll-free phone number to report an emergency or crossing malfunction instead of only a signal malfunction, and phone calls now are received directly by MTA's police department instead of via local police departments.

St. Louis' MetroLink recently made a signage change, as well. The light-rail operator began using a new crossing warning sign that combines "Look Both Ways" and "Danger: Moving Trains" messages.

Other signs will be relocated outside of a pedestrian barrier's limits to increase awareness, said MetroLink Director of Capital Project Kelly Hamm in an email. The railroad designed pedestrian barriers to channel pedestrians and make them more aware of an oncoming train.

With pedestrians, motorists and trains continuing to face the risk of an accident when they cross paths, railroads expect to keep pursuing engineering options to ensure the public recognizes and heeds warning devices, and crossing equipment remains in working order.

Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.


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