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— by Angela Cotey, senior associate editor
During the past several years, the increasing number of motorists using cell phones and pedestrians wearing earbuds has led to more distracted drivers and amblers than ever before. And it's of particular concern to railroads as they continue their quest to promote safe behavior around grade crossings.
In the more challenging environment, railroad officials continue to push the safety message through public outreach campaigns. On the equipment front, communication and signal managers are equipping crossings with the latest devices designed to alert drivers and pedestrians when a train is coming. And, railroad engineers continue plugging away at crossing closures.
Caltrain, for example, is wrapping up work on a grade separation project in San Bruno, Calif., that will eliminate three crossings, two of which were listed near the top of the California Public Utilities Commission's list of the most dangerous crossings. The ranking is based on historical accident and fatality data, geometry, sight distance and traffic volume.
The commuter railroad is building a mile-long grade separation that will eliminate crossings at San Bruno, San Mateo and Angus avenues. With an Interstate 380 flyover located above the crossings and Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) heavy-rail system operating just beneath the road, Caltrain engineers had to work around some tough constraints.
"Our only option was to partially raise the rail and partially depress the road," says Project Manager Rafael Bolon.
Engineers also needed to be sensitive to the BART system below the road, which meant that when Caltrain began installing the piles on which the rail bridges would be supported, workers had to pre-drill to below the depth of the BART system before they started driving piles.
"That meant zero friction for BART — everything took place below the system," says Bolon.
Weight became a factor, as well. The BART system wasn't designed to accommodate the weight of a grade separation, so Caltrain engineers had to ensure it was equal to the total weight of the infrastructure previously in place. Caltrain excavated 11 feet below the ground, removing soil and replacing it with lightweight cellular concrete. The agency then installed mechanically stabilized earth wall panels made from regular-weight, reinforced concrete. The remainder of the grade separation is filled with lightweight material.
Caltrain broke ground on the $155 million project in late 2010. During construction, trains operated on a temporary rail bypass built just to the west of the grade separation. In May, trains began operating on the grade separation. Workers now are constructing a station platform on the northbound track (the southbound platform already is complete) and finishing street improvements. The project is scheduled to be "substantially complete" by April 2014, says Bolon.
Closures have been a top crossing-safety focus at BNSF Railway Co. since the railroad launched an "aggressive" crossing consolidation program in 2000, according to railroad literature. Candidates for closures include redundant crossings, located near other crossings that enable access to the same roads or areas; crossings located along corridors not designated as emergency routes or in areas that have low traffic volumes; and private crossings that are no longer needed or used. During the past 13 years, BNSF has closed 5,776 crossings, including 144 in 2013.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is in the midst of closing a series of crossings between Raleigh and Charlotte as part of its Piedmont Improvement Program. Using $546.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, the agency will build 12 grade separations along the 174-mile corridor that will enable the agency to close 23 public and 20 private crossings, says NCDOT Rail Division Director Paul Worley.
The project builds on NCDOT's effort to incrementally add higher-speed rail service on the Raleigh-Charlotte corridor. Since the mid-1990s, the agency has closed 59 crossings on the line. NCDOT expects to complete the current series of separations by 2016's end.
"There is a lot of talk about high-speed rail on this corridor, and while that may be where things end up, our approach is to try to improve travel times, improve reliability and eliminate safety hazards rather than trying to reach a higher speed for the sake of saying we're operating at a top speed," says Worley.
To improve safety at existing crossings, NCDOT, like many railroads, is looking to install safer, more reliable technology. In 2014, NCDOT will install Wavetronix L.L.C.'s SmartSensor Rail at some crossings. Installed atop the crossing exit or entrance gate masts, the radar system can detect if a vehicle is trapped in a four-quadrant gate. The technology interfaces with the crossing signal system, so the gates can be lifted if a vehicle is detected. The radar system can be used in conjunction with or instead of inductive loops installed beneath a crossing.
"We're trying to get out of placing technology or devices in the pavement because we don't want to have a malfunction of any kind," says Worley. "And it's more for the North Carolina DOT to maintain when a railroad comes through and resurfaces track."
Once the radar detection systems are installed, NCDOT will use video cameras to determine the systems' reliability.
Reliability is a concern for BNSF, too. With 25,800 crossings throughout its network, many of which are equipped with active warning devices, the railroad has plenty of equipment to monitor. The Class I spends an average of $45 million annually on crossing signal maintenance and repair, according to the railroad. BNSF signal employees inspect each active warning device monthly; they also review the functionality of gates, lights and back-up power sources.
In addition, key corridors are inspected four times per week and the most heavily used routes are inspected daily. Track inspectors also review the condition of whistle posts, crossbucks and active warning devices.
BNSF continues to implement newer technologies, too, including four-quadrant gates, extended cantilever arms, median barriers, in-pavement LED lights, barrier gates, stationary horns and devices that instantly report active warning system failures via cellular technology.
When it comes to protecting crossings, officials at Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) have their hands full. The 351-mile regional has 577 mainline crossings, about 300 of which are located in a 90-mile segment between West Palm Beach and Miami. All crossings are equipped with active warning lights and gates. As crossings are upgraded, FEC equips them with LED lights. The railroad also is installing constant warning devices, which trigger gates based on calculated train speed. The devices replace motion detectors or track circuits, says Andy Fowler, general manager of signals and communications.
"When track circuits see the train, no matter what the speed, the gates go down, which means there could potentially be a long period of time during which the crossing is activated if the train is traveling slowly," he says. "Constant warning devices give you 30 seconds of warning time, whether the train is moving fast or slow."
FEC recently installed constant warning devices on a series of 19 crossings leading into PortMiami. As part of a larger project to implement on-dock rail service at the port, the regional rebuilt crossings and removed antiquated crossing equipment along a four-mile, seldom-used track segment running from north of Miami into the port. The mainline portion of the project was completed in 2012; in 2014, FEC will upgrade two crossings within the port.
In addition, the railroad recently completed a project that involved upgrading crossings at the entrance of Port Everglades, near where FEC's Fort Lauderdale ramp is located. Crossing upgrades also were needed at Hialeah Yard in Miami, where FEC added a second track. The railroad will do the same in Jacksonville at Bowden Yard in 2014.
"As you add track, you have to widen out the crossings," says Fowler.
Transit agencies continually seek new equipment to make crossing areas safer for pedestrians and motorists, as well. Several years ago, Metra collaborated with Union Pacific Railroad to install Another Train Warning System at eight stations on the commuter railroad's UP West line. An illuminated sign and audio alerts located at the crossing let pedestrians know if a train is present or approaching.
"People will see one train coming and think it's the only one on the tracks," says Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis.
As part of the installation, Metra reconfigured the station areas: As passengers leave the platform, they are diverted to a sidewalk with a gated crossing area, where they can safely wait until the tracks are clear, says Gillis.
But officials at Metra and other railroads can't rely solely on equipment and technology to keep people safe. They also employ aggressive education and public outreach campaigns that teach safe behavior at and around crossings. Metra has two full-time presenters who visit high schools and grade schools in the railroad's six-county service region to talk about crossing safety and distribute materials, which then are sent home to parents, says Metra Director of Safety Hilary Konczal.
"That way, particularly with the grade schools, the kids can educate the parents," he says.
Like many railroads, Metra's safety messages are based on Operation Lifesaver Inc.'s rail safety education programs. Many high schools in Metra's service region have incorporated the program into the driver's education course.
Area schools also participate in Metra's school safety poster and essay contest, now in its eighth year. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade are invited to design a poster promoting safe behavior around railroads. The winning posters are used as art on Metra's monthly passes.
To reach audiences beyond the classroom, Metra conducts station safety blitzes. Agency personnel visit about 55 stations annually to hand out train safety literature to passengers and talk to riders about railroad safety. The blitzes often are held in coordination with local police departments, who have officers on hand to engage with people, as well.
"It sends a message to passengers that we're all serious about crossing safety," says Konczal.
Metra's safety department seeks new ways to get the message out to different audiences. In summer 2012, the agency organized an event at a Chicago White Sox baseball game. Former Executive Director Alex Clifford threw out the first pitch and recorded a public safety message that aired during the game and several others, says Gillis.
CSX Transportation has found professional sporting events to be a great way to spread the safety message, too. For the past several years, the Class I has partnered with Front Row Motorsports to carry out the "Play it Safe" campaign. CSX is a sponsor of NASCAR driver David Ragan's car, which is adorned with a "Play it Safe Around Railroad Tracks" message, the CSX logo and an "I Brake for Trains" bumper sticker. The campaign helps CSX target a key demographic: 18- to 34-year-olds who are involved in "an abundance" of railroad crossing and trespassing incidents and accidents, says CSX Director of Community Affairs and Safety Terry Ludban.
"Folks at a race can see our message and take that safety message home," he says. "We also get exposure on television."
Social media helps CSX garner even more exposure when people post photos of Ragan's car or share information about CSX's safety message.
"Social media gives us an outlet we wouldn't have otherwise," says Ludban. "With everyone sharing information via social media, instead of CSX or Operation Lifesaver driving the message, others are helping to get it out there."
CSX is spreading the message in other ways, too. The railroad has 11 field safety staff, all certified to provide Operation Lifesaver training to the general public as well as first responders. CSX also conducts a Grade Crossing Crash Investigation program for police officers.
"Those are extremely effective because they get us into the communities to talk to officials within the cities, as well as speak with the schools, or the local chamber of commerce or rotary," says Ludban.
At FEC, officials last fall targeted their education efforts on the new four-mile track segment in Miami.
"People hadn't seen trains running down these tracks in years, so we had to not only educate them about crossing safety, but also about the dangers of walking down the railroad and even parking too close to the tracks," says FEC Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary Robert Ledoux.
FEC also participates in Operation Lifesaver's train safety week, which is held in May. A number of railroad employees visit major crossings to hand out fliers to people and promote crossing safety.
As long as there are crossings to protect, railroads never will stop preaching the safety message or seeking new technologies to install. In an effort to minimize accidents and incidents, rail safety officers strive to ensure appropriate behavior around crossings is top of mind for motorists and pedestrians.
"It's like anything — after you've seen it 100 times, you don't see it anymore," says Ledoux. "We are always trying to think about how we can best educate people."