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January 2009

Rail News: C&S

Railroads rely on education, engineering to reduce grade crossing accidents/incidents

By Angela Cotey, associate editor

Railroads continued to make crossing-safety strides last year. Accidents and incidents at public and private U.S. grade crossings plummeted 12.4 percent to 1,767 during 2008’s first nine months, according to preliminary Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data.

Granted, freight-rail traffic during that same timeframe was down slightly compared with 2007’s first nine months, but passenger-rail traffic steadily increased as transit agencies opened new and extended lines nationwide. Yet, the accident dip is less a result of the number of trains passing through crossings and more a reflection of railroads’ aggressive efforts to prevent crossing incidents, railroad safety executive say.

“As the year closes out, we’ve reduced grade crossing and trespasser incidents by about 18 percent, which is pretty significant,” says Union Pacific Railroad Director of Industry and Public Projects Patrick Halsted. “Those numbers have continued to trend downward over the last decade and I think it’s the result of many factors — increased awareness around crossings and railroad tracks, technology improvements, and working with communities and closing crossings.

Railroads and transit agencies continue to remain active in all those areas and then some. They seek to develop educational programs, implement new technology and equipment, and enforce safety around tracks to ensure that crossing accident and incident rates keep spiraling down.

“We focus on the three E’s — engineering, enforcement and education — and we apply all elements to all of our rail lines, because one element by itself doesn’t work,” says Abdul Zohbi, manager of system safety for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA). “You need a combination of all three to have a positive result in lowering accidents.”

LACMTA began focusing heavily on one of those “E’s” in 2003, when it launched service on the Metro Gold Line, a 13.7-mile light-rail corridor linking L.A.’s Union Station and Sierra Madre Villa. The agency tailored an education program for its operations rather than relying on Operation Lifesaver’s industry-wide program.

“At that time, Operation Lifesaver didn’t address light rail, and that’s primarily what’s being built in the United States right now,” says Barbara Burns, LACMTA’s manager of transit education programs. “And, we’re going through densely populated neighborhoods in the inner city, so we thought we needed something more dramatic.”

Now, LACMTA conducts site-specific crossing safety presentations at all schools within three miles of its rail system that reach 344,000 students. Presentations feature crossings located in the area surrounding each school.

“We’re talking to kids specifically about what issues they must look for when crossing their streets,” says Burns.

Taking it on the Road

LACMTA also promotes its safety message to municipalities via a mobile theater displayed at community events. A cartoon geared toward children under age 10 shows a group of kids playing ball, running, biking and skateboarding on or near Metro tracks. The general message: “Tracks are for trains, not for playing games.” The mobile theater also features a rap video geared toward kids older than 11.

In addition, LACMTA is focusing on safety education in communities near the Metro Gold Line Eastside extension, which is expected to open in July between Union Station and East Los Angeles.

The authority recently completed safety training programs in local schools and currently is concentrating on similar programs for hospitals and businesses located along the six-mile corridor.

For example, agency officials visit nearby senior centers and conduct walking tours to show residents how the pedestrian crossings work.

“There’s never been a train in this area, so we have to educate people on how to live with [the trains],” says Burns.

LACMTA also deploys “rail ambassadors” in communities about three months before a new rail line opens. Retired rail operators, the ambassadors monitor critical intersections during the line’s testing phase and the behavior of local residents near tracks.

They not only warn people if they do something wrong near a crossing, but alert LACMTA officials about dangerous behavior, says Burns.

“For example, when we opened our Gold Line, parents were dropping their kids off at a school and were lined up around the building and sitting on tracks,” she says. “So, we worked with the school to change the way parents dropped their kids off; we wouldn’t have known that had ambassadors not been out there.”

With its own Link light-rail line opening this summer, Sound Transit also is focusing on crossing safety education.

The agency has created a series of posters for school-age children urging them to be safe near tracks. One poster shows a child with earbuds and stresses the need to be alert around the light rail line; another shows a kid with a skateboard and warns children to stay off the tracks.

Sound Transit plans to soon hire a contractor with experience dealing with high school-age students to target teens. The contractor is expected to launch an interactive Web site designed to instill Sound Transit’s safety message and determine an incentive for the students who use it. The agency also plans to launch an ambassador program to encourage high school students to design and implement a safety program for their peers.

Drivers Beware

Sound Transit needs to keep motorists and pedestrians safe around the soon-to-open Link system, as well — specifically, on a five-mile segment that runs through the Rainier Valley. The remainder of the 15-mile downtown Seattle-to-Sea-Tac Airport corridor is mostly underground or on elevated tracks.

“It’s a section that runs at-grade on a fairly busy street in the Rainier Valley,” says Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray. “It was a two-lane road with a middle turning lane and we rebuilt the entire roadway.”

Now, the two traffic lanes are separated by light-rail tracks. The agency eliminated most areas where motorists could make a left turn, so cars won’t be able to turn in front of trains when they begin operating in a few months, says Gray. At those intersections where vehicles can still make a turn, Sound Transit has installed warning and train-crossing lights.

In addition, trains will have traffic signal priority during peak periods. As a train leaves a station, a new communications system will send a message to hold the next traffic light at red a few more seconds to allow the train to pass through.

Sound Transit also installed 10 signalized pedestrian crossings along the line that feature Z-style gates.

“The gates force you to look up at the tracks in the direction the trains will be traveling,” says Gray. “You can’t bolt across the tracks; you make a zig-zag.”

The pedestrian crossings also feature a refuge island area for pedestrians who can’t make it across both sets of tracks before another train passes by.

Determining how to best keep crossings safe on light-rail systems — which oftentimes operate in the street alongside motorists — is a top priority for other transit agencies, as well.

New Rules of the Road

The majority of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Harris County, Texas’ (METRO) light-rail system operates along Main Street through downtown Houston. When the system opened in January 2004, motorists didn’t adapt well to having trains nearby.

While it’s been illegal to make a left turn on Main Street for more than two decades, drivers often did it anyway, says METRO Chief Safety Officer Reggie Mason. In its first couple months of operation, METRO recorded 20 accidents caused by drivers making a left turn in front of a train.

So, in March 2004, the agency implemented an all-red traffic signal procedure at several intersections. As a train approaches an intersection, all signals turn red to allow the train to pass through. METRO since has recorded only one left-turn accident, says Mason.

Hitting the Pavement

However, motorists traveling east/west occasionally crashed into the side of a train traveling north/south. So, the agency installed in-pavement lighting at 12 intersections beginning in August 2006.

Now, as a train approaches an intersection, the signal for east/west traffic turns red and the in-pavement lights flash red to alert drivers that a train is coming. METRO is testing the lights through a trial with the Federal Highway Administration and hopes to obtain approval to install them system-wide, says Mason.

LACMTA safety officials plan to soon begin testing in-pavement warning lights, too.

The lights would be installed at one intersection on the Blue Line light-rail corridor and one on the Orange Line busway. If results are promising, the authority will install the lights along the rest of the Blue Line, says LACMTA’s Zohbi.

The authority then could add the lights to its list of Blue Line crossing safety improvements. Since 1995, LACMTA has spent about $20 million to upgrade crossings along the high-density urban area line, which runs 22 miles between L.A. and Long Beach, Calif. The line has 103 crossings of which 28 are gated.

Among the improvements: light-emitting diode (LED) flashing signs at crossings in Long Beach and at all left-turn pockets, and four-quadrant gates at all crossings where trains reach speeds exceeding 35 mph.

“We started implementing these new safety measures because we had several accidents on the Blue Line,” says Zohbi. “As a result, I don’t remember the last time we had a train vs. automobile accident on the line.”

LACMTA plans to make the Blue Line crossing improvements standard on all new lines, including the under-construction Eastside and Expo lines, which will feature cameras at left-turn pockets.

Incremental Improvements

Meanwhile, C&S officials at MTA Metro-North Railroad are primarily trying to upgrade existing crossing equipment.

The commuter-rail agency receives about $2 million in each of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s five-year capital programs to replace flashers or gate motors at 92 crossings.

Metro-North also is switching from incandescent lamps to LEDs, which are brighter and last longer, says Wayne Staley, Metro-North’s director of communications and signal.

For the past 10 years, Metro-North has been incrementally installing event recorders at crossings, as well. The devices help trouble-shoot crossing problems and record information in case of a collision. The next big push: adding remote diagnostics so the agency can monitor each crossing from a central location. Metro-North officials hope funding is included for remote diagnostics in the MTA’s 2010-2014 capital program, says Staley.

The Freight Factor

Similar to their transit counterparts, Class Is are using a range of tactics to make crossings safer, such as implementing technology and signage, and closing thousands of crossings.

This year, UP expects 95 percent of its locomotive fleet to feature Track Image Recorders, which are cameras installed in locomotive cabs to record views of crossings and signals. The remaining 5 percent is “foreign power” that runs on the Class I’s tracks, says UP’s Halsted.

The cameras will help UP and law enforcement agencies investigate crossing collisions and monitor motorists’ behavior near crossings, he says. The Class I began installing the cameras in 2005.

UP also is addressing signage issues at crossings throughout its system. Railroad officials anticipate that in 2009, the Federal Railroad Administration will issue a rule on manual and uniform traffic control devices at crossings, says Halsted.

So, the Class I is working with local road authorities and state transportation departments to install stop or yield signs on crossbucks at all public crossings — an effort that actually began about five years ago.

“It just adds that extra visual reminder or warning to motorists to approach a crossing expecting a train,” says Halsted.

Conversely, BNSF Railway Co. is upgrading signage at private crossings. In the first quarter, the Class I will install one-inch, solar-powered, blinking LED lights on stop signs at five crossings in Kansas and five in Texas as part of a pilot program, says BNSF Director of Public Projects and Field Engineering Lyn Hartley.

“We’ll see if that improves driver behavior at those crossings,” he says.

If it does, BNSF plans to install the signs at private crossings located in commercial and industrial parks.

“Over time, land has developed around those crossings, so the road isn’t purely private,” says Hartley. “But often times, the local road authority hasn’t yet adopted those crossings into the road system.”

Closing Time

Communities also have developed around tracks over the years. That’s why many freight railroads are pushing to close redundant crossings to reduce the risk of an accident.

In 2008, UP closed 466 crossings. The Class I will aim for a similar target in 2009, says Halsted.

“We’re really trying to take a team approach, partnering with a local road authority, state authority and adjacent businesses to look at the whole transportation plan and see what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense,” he says. “We target areas with a higher volume of crossings and look at crossings that are redundant, and seek opportunities for overpasses or underpasses.”

Zeroing In

So does BNSF — although pinpointing potential closure candidates is becoming harder.

The Class I launched a closure program in 2000 and since has closed more than 4,300 crossings. BNSF reached a milestone by closing its 4,000th crossing in June 2008 and closed a total of 450 crossings last year. Officials have set a similar target for 2009.

“The first year of the program, we closed 620 crossings. The second year, we closed 550,” says Hartley. “Of course, that was the true low-hanging fruit. Closures don’t get easier as you narrow them down.”

That’s why meeting their ambitious 450-closure goal will require a fair amount of planning and teamwork.

BNSF has 10 public project managers and 22 field safety managers that focus on the closure program. The managers conduct a conference call every two weeks to determine if any of them need help with their closure projects. In addition, BNSF maintains a database that tracks the crossings targeted for closure.

The Class I expects to mark its next milestone — the 5,000th closure — in August 2010.

The closures are making a difference in BNSF’s overall crossing safety statistics, says Hartley.

Safety data through Nov. 30 showed the railroad registered 1.55 collisions per million train miles compared with 1.79 during the same 2007 period. In addition, industrial truck collisions plummeted 36 percent and pedestrian/trespasser casualty incidents dropped 18 percent.

“We feel our closure program is a very important part as to why the accidents and incidents on BNSF’s tracks are lower than the industry as a whole,” says Hartley.

For all railroads, reducing crossing accidents will forever be a top priority. Expect the closure programs, educational efforts and crossing equipment upgrades to continue at an aggressive clip now and for years to come, railroad safety officials say.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.