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By Michael Popke
The coronavirus pandemic affected just about every aspect of railroading last year, including efforts to improve grade crossing safety. So railroads and other rail industry constituents needed to adapt.
Since COVID-19 made the usual in-person delivery of crossing safety education messages and programs unfeasible, other means were necessary. For Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI) — a nonprofit organization that partners with railroads and a volunteer network to prevent crossing accidents and trespassing through public education and awareness campaigns — such a pivot proved difficult.
“We’re a people organization; our message is about changing human behavior. So we’re used to getting out into communities,” says OLI Executive Director Rachel Maleh.
OLI opted to put more emphasis on its public service announcements and social media presence, and reframe some of its education presentations into virtual resources.
Moreover, OLI in late 2020 began offering a free Railroad Investigation and Safety Course (RISC) to law enforcement officers and first responders. RISC — which replaces the Grade Crossing Collision Investigation Course — is designed to cover the proper safety techniques for responding to or investigating crossing collisions and trespassing incidents.
OLI and railroads need to keep stressing safer behaviors at crossings and along track because a person or vehicle is struck by a train every three hours, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Preliminary FRA data shows there were 293 crossing fatalities in 2019 — the highest mark since 2007.
Last month, the FRA implemented a final rule requiring all states and the District of Columbia to either develop or update crossing action plans.
In addition to working with government agencies and OLI, railroads are striving to institute their own measures to make crossings safer for both motorists and passersby, such as by eliminating more crossings or teaming with the GPS navigation mobile application Waze.
Norfolk Southern Railway last year expanded a pilot program it began in 2019 with Waze to educate drivers about crossing safety. The railroad conducted a three-month campaign from September through mid-December 2020 using the app.
As motorists approached crossings with a history of incidents, they received a safety message on their device through Waze, such as “Tracks nearby. Be smart. Be safe” or “Your safety starts with you. Cross carefully.”
“These messages [were] intended to urge people to think about how they behave around train tracks and to make the right decision to keep themselves and anyone in the vehicle safe,” says NS Public Safety Director Will Miller.
Waze messages were generated in communities that collectively have 749 crossings and recorded a total of 1,383 vehicle-train incidents, 420 of which occurred since 2000. The 2020 Waze campaign — which was waged in 18 markets compared with six in 2019 — reached 485,000 Waze users and generated 1.9 million messages, says Miller.
It supplemented NS’ other crossing safety efforts, including the elimination of 635 public and private crossings since 2013. The railroad uses Google Earth to identify unnecessary crossings on private property in rural areas.
“We’re the only U.S. Class I that is seeing both highway vehicle incident rates per million train miles and trespasser incident rates per million train miles going down,” Miller says.
Another Waze partner that has targeted safety with the app is MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). Alerts generated by the commuter railroad notify Waze users as they approach one of LIRR’s nearly 300 crossings.
“Since we partnered with Waze almost two years ago to bring crossing alerts to motorists as part of a suite of railroad crossing safety improvements, the LIRR has virtually eliminated what had been a growing phenomenon of motorists mistaking tracks for roadways,” LIRR President Phil Eng said in an August 2020 press release.
In addition, LIRR has earned FRA recognition for its use of flexible reflective delineators, extended roadway markings and additional reflective devices at crossings to better alert drivers. As of late 2020, the railroad also was in the process of replacing eight crossings along a 10-mile corridor with grade-separated underpasses via a new method that doesn’t impact residential properties.
“In the past, we traditionally built a grade crossing separation adjacent to an existing road, taking properties. [But] in this case, we used design-build, which accelerated the timeframe and allowed for the work to be completed faster and safer while minimizing the impact to the communities,” says Eng.
Union Pacific Railroad also is seeking innovative approaches to enhance crossing safety in its network, such as through virtual calls and town halls.
“In some areas on our network, particularly where we have high activity of large trucks driving across our tracks, we have spent time educating and engaging companies so everyone understands the risk associated with trying to beat [a] train,” said Erin Batt, UP’s assistant vice president and chief safety officer, in an email.
UP also recently bolstered its educational efforts with special events held during National Teen Driver Safety Week and messages tailored to demographic groups. For example, the railroad partnered with the nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide and animated TV series Chuggington: Tales from the Rails to create safety videos aimed at children.
Research conducted in partnership with Safe Kids Worldwide found that the majority of parents do not talk to their children about rail safety despite data that shows a child dies every five days in a rail-related incident. Those findings prompted a social media awareness campaign to provide parents with potentially lifesaving information.
UP also is attempting to address rail safety from the train crew’s experience.
“Two of our … train crew members were part of a safety video for their local PBS station that gave a safety message from their perspective,” Batt said. “Their message is valuable in understanding the day-to-day safe operations of handling our equipment, particularly when it comes to crossings.”
The need for continuous rail safety education and reinforcement also is top-of-mind for Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Co. (W&LE) officials.
“Education is the most important thing we can do,” says W&LE President Jonathan Chastek. “There is a lack of understanding that trains can’t stop.”
To that end, when students at an Akron, Ohio, high school constantly crossed the railroad’s tracks several years ago, W&LE officials used OLI materials to work with local law enforcement leaders and school administrators to stress the importance of crossing the tracks legally and safely. As a result, the number of close calls near the school dropped, says Chastek.
In terms of crossing safety, W&LE in recent years has switched from incandescent lights to brighter and longer-lasting LED lights in all flashers and on many gates at crossings in Ohio. In addition, the regional has installed systems designed to remotely monitor mechanical issues and send alerts.
The railroad in 2020 also began electronic recordkeeping of lights and gate testing at crossings via TrackAsset railroad inspection management software. Testing previously was performed manually with paper record keeping.
“We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg right now,” Chastek says. “As technology continues to develop, it will make things better for the railroads and their communities because we’ll be able to respond faster to crossing-related issues.”
The adoption of technologies also is part of Metra’s crossing safety strategy. The Chicago-area commuter railroad is in the midst of a $28.5 million expansion project that involves installing a fiber optic network along the SouthWest Service and Rock Island lines by 2021’s end.
The network will help improve safety along track and at crossings by creating a more reliable transmission system for signals, said Metra spokesperson Meg Thomas-Reile in an email. It also will provide additional communications bandwidth that will support the installation of cameras at 300 crossings and depots along both lines.
Metra’s goal: to leverage its existing communications infrastructure to remotely access event recorders, and monitor crossing gate and signal performance in real time.
“Our focus has been on using technology to improve our ability to proactively monitor crossing gate and signal performance,” Thomas-Reile said. “Our crossings are equipped with event recorders, but currently the information collected by these devices can only be downloaded by a maintainer after an incident is reported or as part of regular inspection and maintenance.”
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) is tapping technology as well, specifically one that’s proved beneficial over the past several years.
The agency has made the installation of four-quadrant gates at crossings a standard now because they are effective at reducing incidents, says Abdul Zohbi, LA Metro’s systems safety manager. The gates help seal off an intersection to prevent motorists from illegally maneuvering around lowered gates.
LA Metro also recently began installing left-turn gates that block motorists from entering a crossing.
“Illegal left turns are the number one cause of accidents on light rail,” says Zohbi, adding that LA Metro tries to “think outside of the box” when it comes to keeping communities safer.
For example, the authority offers virtual tours of Los Angeles Union Station, virtual safety workshops and interactive videos. Like all railroads, LA Metro is trying to pull out all the stops to prevent accidents and fatalities.
“As long as you have grade crossings, you have challenges,” says Zohbi. “It is our job to do our best to mitigate violations and accidents. We do our job, and we expect the public to do theirs by obeying the law.”
Michael Popke is a Madison, Wisconsin-based freelance writer. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.