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— by Jeff Stagl, managing editor
BNSF Railway Co.'s 32,000-mile network includes more than 28,000 grade crossings, two-thirds of which are located on publicly owned land. Each day, trains pass by hundreds of thousands of motorists and pedestrians, who sometimes disobey warning signs and put themselves in harm's way.
Despite that daily scenario, the railroad is reducing crossing accidents. When BN-SF merged in 1995, the railroad's rate of crossing collisions per million train miles stood at 5.41; at 2004's end, the rate had dropped
56 percent to 2.40.
The reason: BNSF officials have tried to educate the public — as well as truck drivers and train crews — about potential hazards. During the past decade, the Class I also has attempted to install emerging safety equipment (such as wayside horns and barrier gates), as well as conventional warning devices; control vegetation near crossings; and close
Since launching a 10-year closure program in 2000, the railroad has closed more than 2,700 public and private crossings. BNSF officials expect that figure to reach 3,000 in April.
"We've closed 45 percent of the crossings where trains go 49 mph," says BNSF Director of Field Safety Support Rob Roy. "There's a bigger chance for serious accidents and injuries when trains go more than 45 mph, and a train arrives at a crossing much faster."
Each year, BNSF aims to close more than 400 crossings. About 70 percent of closures involve private crossings
because it's easier to forge an agreement with a landowner than a government body, says Roy.
"We can do some things for a landowner, like build a road adjacent to the property or provide a monetary stipend," he says. "We still have about 9,000 private crossings on the books and think we have an opportunity to close 1,000 or 2,000 of those."
By 2005's end, BNSF officials
expected to close more than 430 crossings. During the year, program administrators attempted to speed the closure process by using a new Web-based time management tool to keep track of when a crossing closes, agreement terms are met, payment is made and barricades are placed.
After finalizing a closure agreement, the railroad also tried to close a crossing or install temporary barricades within five business days instead of waiting for workforces to become available, which typically takes between 30 days and
"We want to make sure a crossing is inaccessible for any use," says Director of Public Projects Lyn Hartley.
When working with community leaders to prevent crossing accidents, BNSF officials recommend closure as the No. 1 option.
"But that's not always the answer," says Hartley.
So, railroad officials suggest a city install center medians, which cost less than closing a crossing and can be
installed by a municipality's own workforce instead of a railroad crew.
A city also could create one-way streets so a crossing affects only one side of a road.
Sometimes, adopting technology is the best option. Soon, BNSF expects to install its first-ever stationary wayside horn at a crossing in Tacoma, Wash. Produced by Railroad Controls Ltd., the Automated Horn System (AHS) is designed to direct a digitally recorded train horn at passing motorists. BNSF also plans to install AHS at crossings in Parkville, Mo., and Wellsville, Kan.
"The horns are less expensive than four-quadrant gates — about $60,000 to $70,000 compared to $250,000 to $400,000," says Hartley.
BNSF also plans to install Quixote Transportation Safety Inc.'s Stopgate™ vehicle arresting barrier gates at three Alabama crossings. The state obtained funds for five Stopgates, which feature a device that locks into a mechanism on a roadway to prevent a vehicle from penetrating the barrier.
However, the Class I is trying to
do more than install devices to help prevent crossing accidents. Like all railroads, BNSF encourages employees to report "near collisions" under a voluntary program, which is generating about 1,000 reports annually.
"We meet with [state] DOTs once a month," says Roy. "We might tell them we've had nine reports at a crossing and something is going on there."
BNSF also is installing digital color cameras on locomotives to record
motorists' actions at crossings. In 2005, the railroad expected to install
300 cameras — supplied by GE Transportation-Rail — mostly on new locomotives; this year, BNSF plans to install 500 cameras. In addition, the Class I — which operates more than 4,000 locomotives — is installing external microphones to record sounds from horns, bells and electronic signals.
"The cameras tell us the behavior of trespassers and motorists, and we can show recordings to Operation Lifesaver and safety groups, and use them in litigation," says Rick Lifto, assistant vice president of BNSF's general claims
department. "We hope to install the cameras on all road units that serve as lead units in the next several years."
To view fewer recordings of collisions, BNSF officials are counting
on education programs to help change
motorists' behavior. In 2005, BNSF sponsored about 4,700 Operation Lifesaver (OL) safety presentations — conducted at high schools, driver education classes, Rotary Clubs and school bus firms to target new and experienced drivers — compared with 4,500 in 2004. Last year, OL trained 350 volunteers, who on BNSF's behalf conduct crossing safety presentations.
In 2005, BNSF also conducted 700 hour-long crossing-hazard education classes at more than 150 trucking firms, including Yellow Freight and United Parcel Service.
"Sometimes, a truck goes over a humped crossing and the driver gets the trailer hung on it," says Roy.
For local law enforcement, the railroad completed about 100 "Officer
on a Train" programs under which a
police officer rides on a train to watch
motorists at crossings, and radios
another officer to issue citations or warnings; and 340 "Roll Call" sessions under which a BNSF official conducts a follow-up visit with officers who took the Class I's safety course.
The Class I also participated in more than 100 Grade Crossing Collision Investigation (GCCI) courses
offered at police academies so officers understand the railroad's operations and needs.
Late last year, BNSF finished developing GCCI-CBT, a free, computer-based distance-learning tool designed to provide 15 GCCI course modules on a CD-ROM.
The Class I planned to mail a copy to 25,000 police chiefs nationwide. In development the past two years, the tool also will be available to all railroads. Eventually, BNSF will turn over GCCI-CBT to Operation Lifesaver to administer, says Roy.
"An officer can review the disc on a laptop or their home computer, then go to a Web site to take the final exam," Roy says. "We understand that since 9/11, police have been busy providing anti-terrorism training vs. railroad training."
Whether through education, equipment, vigilance or closures, BNSF officials believe they're making crossings safer by employing a multi-faceted
strategy — one they expect to continue paying off for the Class I, employees, landowners and city leaders, as well as motorists and pedestrians.