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By Grace Renderman, Associate Editor
Grade crossing safety remains a constantly evolving priority for railroads. They aim to elicit a lot of effort these days to help improve every aspect of safety, from awareness campaigns to educational programs to new technologies to infrastructure upgrades.
Railroads know it takes collaboration, research and innovation to make crossings as safe as possible for trains, motorists and pedestrians. It also takes an ongoing partnership with Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI), which marked its 50th anniversary in 2022.
The railroad safety education organization has worked with railroads to lower the number of crossing incidents since 1972. Over the past 50 years, collisions have dropped 83%, said OLI Executive Director Rachel Maleh in an email.
Although safety data for 2022 is not yet available, preliminary statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration show crossing collisions dropped 4% between 2019 and 2021, from 2,237 to 2,146 recorded incidents. The number of collisions sharply decreased in 2020 to 1,901 — the lowest ever recorded — due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions. Fatalities and injuries fell by about 20% from 2019 to 2021.
To keep crossing accidents and incidents on the decline, OLI plans to continue stressing public education and outreach. This year, the organization aims to focus on a younger audience by providing transit-rail safety coloring and activity books, pledges and posters. School bus drivers also will be targeted more intently with a new video and supplemental educational materials highlighting safety near crossings.
In addition, multiple new public safety announcements will highlight the “importance of making safe choices around tracks and trains,” Maleh said.
“OLI will continue to share safety tips, materials and other crossing safety education items via social media in an engaging, eye-catching way,” she added.
A big part of OLI’s outreach each year is Rail Safety Week, which in 2023 will take place Sept. 18-24. During the week, OLI will lead efforts to spread awareness messaging with government agencies, first responders, railroads, transit agencies, industry associations, media partners and farm groups.
One new project expected to launch in 2023: an expansion of the organization’s Railroad Investigation and Safety Course. Through the course, OLI provides new training materials for firefighters who respond to train-related incidents.
OLI also will partner with the FRA, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and private organizations — such as the Posner Foundation of Pittsburgh — to provide competitive grant funding to state programs, Maleh said.
“OLI is grateful to these federal and private partners for their support in reducing vehicle-train collisions, deaths and injuries,” she said. “Those grants will be announced in the second quarter of 2023.”
Similar competitive grants for transit agency public safety campaigns were recently announced in partnership with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
To gauge what freight and passenger railroads are doing to bolster crossing safety, Progressive Railroading reached out to a cross section of them last month. Following are responses received by email from CSX, Kansas City Southern, Union Pacific Railroad and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System.
CSX owns and manages 22,500 crossings across its 26-state network, so crossing safety is a priority, said company spokesperson Sheriee Bowman.
To that end, the Class I last year created the CSX Incident Reduction Team, a group of special agents dedicated to engaging in safety-focused partnerships with industry stakeholders, law enforcement agencies and government regulators, she said. The team works with emergency responders to reduce accidents and safety incidents through training and education.
“When all of these groups join together, we’ve seen success in the ability to reach different audiences,” Bowman said.
The railroad also has performed in-depth work with first responders. Last year, CSX launched a state-of-the-art first responder training locomotive unit that travels throughout its network to provide interactive rail-safety and hazmat training.
In 2022, CSX hazmat professionals conducted 52 in-person training events with 2,752 first responders in 17 states. Hundreds more completed a virtual rail-safety training course.
In addition, CSX is working with multiple states to pursue funds from the $575 million Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant Program administered by the FRA. Authorized as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in late 2021, the program funds projects involving the construction of grade separation structures, relocation of tracks, installation of automatic warning devices and other work.
All the new approaches are on top of what the railroad continues doing to eliminate crossings, Bowman said.
“We’ve been actively working [on that] since the Federal Railroad Administration challenged all railroads to reduce the number of crossings by 25% in the 1990s,” she said. “CSX supports the consolidation of crossings on our network by offering incentives, such as a match of available federal funding.”
KCS engages in crossing safety enforcement through its own police force, the Kansas City Southern Railway Police Department. Officers host “proactive, positive enforcement events,” such as the Officer on a Train and National Night Out programs, said KCS spokesperson Doniele Carlson.
The events are held in the communities in which KCS operates in conjunction with the Class I’s transportation department and local law enforcement agencies. KCS police officers also work with first responders on railroad incident safety courses.
In terms of technology that helps improve crossing safety, KCS utilizes geofenced safety campaigns on social media, which appear for users who are located within a virtual perimeter. These campaigns can be focused precisely on a target geographic audience, such as a community located near a dangerous crossing. The railroad also uses digital billboard signage and wireless crossing technology in key areas to spread safety awareness and prevent trespassing, Carlson said.
“We have begun exploring wireless crossing technology that leverages positive train control infrastructure to achieve an even greater level of safety for trains approaching a warning system,” she said. “Additionally, KCS continues to improve the visibility of warning signals by upgrading legacy incandescent lamps to higher-performing LEDs.”
Partnerships with state departments of transportation play an instrumental role in the railroad’s safety and incident prevention efforts. Those partnerships have helped lead to crossing corridor safety improvement projects — using a mix of federal, state and railroad matching funds — in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas. KCS has funded those grant applications, some of which generated federal dollars in Louisiana and Mississippi.
For example, the FRA awarded Louisiana $1.1 million to improve a 6-mile section of KCS-owned track in 2016.
“This allows grade crossing safety improvements to be made on a corridor basis as opposed to one crossing at a time,” Carlson said.
One safety-bolstering strategy is to invite people onboard a locomotive and watch a train in action as it confronts everyday dangers at crossings, said UP spokesperson Robynn Tysver.
The Class I offers the Union Pacific Crossing Accident Reduction Education and Safety (UP CARES) program, through which the railroad invites local law enforcement officers and journalists to ride in a locomotive cab and observe motorists’ behavior at crossings.
“If motorists ignore signals and warnings, officers riding inside the locomotive can dispatch officers positioned nearby to engage the motorist,” Tysver said.
UP also provides its traffic engineering education course free to government agencies and other railroads. The course promotes planning, design and communication efforts related to crossings and crossing safety, Tysver said. Last year, UP conducted six courses involving 177 participants from all over the country.
Meanwhile, UP’s Crossing Assessment Program aims to identify artificial intelligence and machine-learning solutions to help with improving crossing safety, Tysver said. The railroad plans to share its data and crossing review model with federal and state agencies, including the FRA and FHWA.
Across its 23-state network, UP is managing more than 3,400 crossing safety-related projects and has significantly increased its resources to help move those projects along in a timely manner, Tysver said.
“Almost 800 of these projects are grade separations, which will allow for the safe and fluid movement of both roadway and railway traffic,” she said. “These projects not only increase safety, but they also eliminate or significantly reduce blocked and occupied crossing issues.”
Thousands of other crossing safety projects involving signals and communications and surface work are on the Class I’s docket, as well.
Since California ranked second-highest in the nation in the number of crossing collisions in 2021, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (SDMTS) has continued to prioritize safety improvements at its crossings. The transit agency owns assets of San Diego Trolley Inc., which operates light-rail service along 65 miles of track.
SDMTS’ Mid Coast Trolley project, which extended the UC San Diego Blue Line by 11 miles from downtown San Diego, opened for passenger service in late 2021. Since then, the agency has enhanced visual and audible warning technology at two station pedestrian crossings along the extension, said SDMTS spokesperson Grecia Figueroa. The technology — which was funded in part by the FTA — also complies with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
“The safety elements include ‘Look Both Ways’ surface stenciling, pole-mounted signage with flashing LED warning lights [and] audible warning announcements,” Figueroa said. “Device activation timing is designed to accommodate trains operating ‘express’ as the default mode.”
Enhanced safety around tracks also is the goal of the agency’s “Think FAST” campaign, which was launched in 2021. Graphics and signage for the campaign are posted on social media and around SDMTS’ system, including at stations and transit hubs, Figueroa said.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Association of Governments also is applying for multiple grants to fund grade separations in San Diego County. If received, some of those dollars would go toward creating grade separations on SDMTS’ network to eliminate crossings.
“While grade separations aren’t a new technology, [they] certainly help reduce the risk of accidents, and improve pedestrian and passenger safety,” Figueroa said.
SDMTS also recently obtained a $7.2 million Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant from the state of California to help pay for the design, installation and construction of improvements to the crossing warning systems on the Orange Line.
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