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— Compiled by Walter Weart
About every three hours, a pedestrian or vehicle is struck by a train at a U.S. grade crossing, according to Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI) statistics. In 2013, there were 2087 collisions, 251 fatalities and 929 injury incidents at crossings, OLI's preliminary full-year data shows.
So, crossing safety continues to be a paramount concern for freight and passenger railroads. To bolster safety at tens of thousands of crossings, Class Is, regionals, short lines and transit agencies aim to adopt the latest devices and employ more proven technologies to help prevent collisions and fatalities.
For CSX Transportation, the ongoing charge to enhance crossings includes the continued adoption of a different configuration in Florida. The "Platform" or "TUB" crossing uses a concrete platform without railroad ties; rail is affixed directly to the concrete platform panel. Since 2005, the Class I has installed the crossing at 43 Florida locations.
"This type of crossing is currently limited to low-speed areas, but early usage has demonstrated the potential for the crossing to have a longer lifespan than traditional configurations, reducing maintenance and inconvenience to the community," said CSX spokesperson Melanie Cost in an email. "[We're] working with other states in our network to identify potential opportunities to use Platform crossings."
CSX has 24,000 crossings across its 23-state network, and some communities along the railroad's lines continue to apply for quiet zone status through Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requirements. A quiet zone not only prevents train horns from sounding at a crossing, but calls for adding such safety enhancements as roadway median barriers and four-quadrant gates, said Cost.
CSX also expects to gain a crossing safety boost from the positive train control (PTC) system it's implementing. The system will provide a warning to the locomotive engineer if the safety apparatus at a crossing malfunctions, such as a gate arm not operating properly.
"If a train dispatcher is notified that an apparatus is not working, he or she can put a bulletin in the dispatching system, which is shared via the PTC system with the engineers on relevant trains," said Cost. "If the train engineer fails to heed the bulletin by stopping or slowing the train, the PTC system would first warn the engineer and then stop the train, if necessary."
In addition, the PTC system will automatically activate the train horn if the locomotive engineer fails to sound it as required when approaching a crossing. The horn activation takes into account FRA regulations and quiet zones that are defined in track data loaded into the PTC system.
At CN, efforts to replace older crossing motion-sensor devices with new crossing predictor technology already are providing a safety boost. The predictor technology enables the crossing to determine train speed and accurately provide the proper amount of warning time to the public, said CN spokesman Mark Hallman in an email.
The Class I also continues to upgrade crossing signal lights from incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diode lights that are brighter and provide better visibility during the day and in adverse weather conditions. In addition, CN has invested in new and more reliable technology that controls lights and bells at a crossing, and is exploring remote monitoring capabilities that would improve maintenance response times, said Hallman.
But not all of the railroad's attention is focused on devices. Surfaces also are an important safety and operational enhancement. CN uses a variety of crossing surfaces and has gained positive results in crossing life from the installation of full-depth rubber surfaces, said Hallman.
CN and other Canadian railroads also will need to mind new crossing regulations unveiled last month by the Canadian government. To take full effect over the next seven years, the regulations establish new safety standards for federally regulated crossings and target safety improvements among the 14,000 public and 9,000 private crossings in Canada.
The regulations aim to provide consistent crossing safety standards across Canada, clarify the roles and responsibilities of railroads and road authorities, improve safety features and promote collaboration among all parties.
Meanwhile, a regional in North America's far northern reaches is doing several things to make crossings safer, predominantly in the equipment and materials realms. The Alaska Railroad Corp. (ARRC) has begun to upgrade older equipment with Mini Track Side Sensors (MTSS) at crossings equipped with Safetran Event Analyzer and Recorder (SEAR) devices. SEARs also were installed at crossings that did not previously feature the devices.
Because some crossings still were equipped with technology that would not allow the railroad to view gate downtimes, they were upgraded with MTSS devices in accordance with a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation, said ARRC Manager of Signal Maintenance Rodney Neal in an email.
Per another NTSB recommendation, the railroad is installing gates with new vertical striping that replaces the current diagonal pattern. The NTSB believes the change will boost safety by enhancing visual awareness for motorists at crossings, said Neal.
ARRC also is working with Automated Railroad Maintenance Systems Inc. to procure and install Eltek Micropack smart chargers. The Eltek Micropacks provide optimal performance for batteries and greatly enhance the batteries' lifespan, helping to reduce early replacements, said Neal. Moreover, the smart chargers can alert the railroad about problems so they can be resolved before they become emergencies, he said.
ARRC also has ordered 10 CellVoice 16 Net Guardian remote monitoring systems from DPS Telecom. In conjunction with the Eltek Micropacks, the systems allow remote monitoring of crossings and other locations, and provide notification by email and text message if any alarm is activated at a crossing, said Neal. Alarms are triggered for such reasons as power off, or low or high battery voltages.
OmniTRAX Inc. — which owns 19 regionals and short lines that operate 2,300 miles of track in 12 states and two Canadian provinces — is taking a multipronged approach to crossing safety, as well. In 2015, the holding company plans to conduct 33 projects across its railroads to replace passive crossing protection with gates and lights, said OmniTRAX Senior Vice President of Engineering and Capital Projects Officer Ken Koff.
For example, improvements are planned at 16 crossings in Illinois for the Illinois Railway and Chicago Rail Link. The upgrades will be performed in conjunction with the Illinois Commerce Commission's Crossing Safety Improvement Program, which provides $39 million for such projects as warning device upgrades, grade separations, remote monitoring device installations and crossing closures.
OmniTRAX also plans to replace old DC track circuits with constant-warning time systems to optimally adjust the speed of an oncoming train to the amount of warning time provided, regardless of train speed, said Koff.
In addition, the company is working with state and local officials to create a quiet zone in Windsor Colo., where 10 crossings are located. The project — which involves such supplemental safety measures as four-quadrant gates, constant warning systems and roadway medians — qualified for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, said Koff.
"Our business has grown significantly on the Great Western Railway and our operation in and around Windsor is seeing more train movements. This, of course, means more whistles as the trains operate over crossings in the town," he said. "We're just getting started and our goal is to complete the quiet zone project in 2015."
Surfaces are part of OmniTRAX's program, too. Since many crossings have low-density traffic and are located in rural areas, timber and asphalt surfaces tend to work well there, said Koff. However, the company has used concrete panels on some crossings and is analyzing composite material as a potential surface replacement.
MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is conducting some analyses at crossings, as well. The railroad is engaged in a study with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) on high-profile grades.
State regulations stipulate that if highway profile conditions cause long wheelbase vehicles or trailers with low ground clearance to get caught in a crossing, a low ground clearance sign should be installed in advance of the crossing. Although the signage is placed and maintained by NYSDOT, the study will determine when the signs are required, said LIRR Assistant Chief Engineer/Maintenance of Way Glenn Greenberg and Assistant Chief Engineer/Communications and Signal Officer William Hogan in an email.
Through the study, LIRR hopes to identify and install signs at crossings that require the protection, and possibly remove signs that no longer are needed at a particular crossing, they said.
The railroad also is working with NYSDOT to petition the closure of a Gyrodyne Parkside Avenue crossing on the Port Jefferson Branch in Stony Brook, N.Y. The crossing has not been used in many years and access is gated, although a full active warning system remains in place, said Greenberg and Hogan. Two other ongoing closure candidates are located at 43rd Street and 48th Street in Queens, N.Y.
In addition, LIRR is researching the mitigation of "pectin" deposits on rails at crossing approaches. Pectin refers to crushed leaves, organic or biological matter found in plants' cell walls. When crushed by passing trains onto the rail head, typically in fall, the pectin mixes with a light rain or dew and acts as an insulation that isolates the train's wheels from the railhead.
"This contact is needed to detect the presence of a train. Without this detection, the crossing and signaling system may not function properly, [which] can lead to serious safety and operational concerns," said Greenberg and Hogan.
The mitigation efforts include brushing pectin deposits off the railhead and reducing train speeds when the deposits are present. Other train detection methods that don't rely on wheel-to-railhead shunting are being researched, said Greenberg and Hogan.
In terms of surfaces, LIRR for more than 13 years has been using concrete crossing surfaces on concrete ties, which have proven to be durable and require less maintenance than the full-depth rubber on wood ties used previously, they said.
Surfaces are part of Metra's crossing program, too. The Chicago agency has budgeted $2.7 million for crossing replacement work in 2015. Part of Metra's routine maintenance program, the work involves replacing rubber surfaces, tracks and ties at several crossings each year.
The 2015 budget should support work at 15 to 20 crossings, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis in an email.
In the Philadelphia area, a variety of crossing work also is on tap for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in 2015. The agency is in the process of upgrading flashers from eight-inch- to 12-inch models and installing new emergency notification signs at crossings that are easier to read, said SEPTA Chief Engineering Officer Michael Monastero.
The authority also is using "white bar" signals for trolley operators that provide more protection for the trolley and motor vehicles, he said. Many crossings provide preemption of signals for the trolley, but in some high-volume traffic situations, the trolley receives priority but not preemption, said Monastero.
In addition, SEPTA has upgraded pedestrian crossings by using standard "hand" and "man" indication signals to provide optimal warning. Also, "second train coming" signs and different voices for audio warning messages are being employed at crossings, said Monastero.
"While the warning voice for the first train is male, the voice for the 'second train coming' sign is female, so the listener can more easily differentiate," he said.
As part of SEPTA's PTC implementation, the authority is adding crossing malfunctioning alerts that will enable the train engineer to take action to bring the train to a complete stop prior to reaching a crossing, said Monastero.
The engineer will receive a warning after coming to a complete stop and then be required to push a button on the Aspect Display Unit before the train can begin to move through the crossing.
"The train engineer will then be able proceed across the roadway under operating rules requiring a restricted speed once [he or she] has determined that the crossing is clear of vehicles and it is safe to proceed," said Monastero.
In some cases, crossing upgrades not only involve a railroad, but a state agency and/or a high-speed rail corridor. Such is the case in Illinois.
The Illinois Department of Transportation's (IDOT) Division of Public and Intermodal Transportation plans to install more than 200 sets of four-quadrant gates at crossings along a high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and St. Louis used by Amtrak and Union Pacific Railroad. The gates will be combined with vehicle detection loops. IDOT plans to install two gate devices at rural and pedestrian crossings.
"We have not had any vehicle incursions at those crossings where the quad gates have been installed," said Joe Shacter, IDOT's director of public and intermodal transportation.
The ultimate goal is to reduce running time in the corridor to four-and-a-half hours by 2017's end, he said.
When it comes to preventing accidents and fatalities at crossings, the definitive goal for all railroads is to keep safety enhancements a top priority. Reaching out to various stakeholders is a vital part of that objective, too, said CSX's Cost.
"We work with local and state authorities to ensure safety protections are in place and functioning, and that any maintenance needs are handled in a timely manner," she said.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based freelance writer.