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By Daniel Niepow, Associate Editor
Each grainy video depicts a similar pattern: A light-rail train passes through a nondescript landscape in northwestern Oregon until it reaches a grade crossing, where a pedestrian comes chillingly close to getting struck.
Released in November last year, this "close call" footage from years past was one component of a major safety push from the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) after a week of serious crossing collisions involving its transit vehicles.
"It wasn't an unusual year until November," says TriMet Director of Safety and Environmental Services Kurt Wilkinson, noting that three injury-causing incidents occurred over a four-day period during that month. "We take it very seriously when we have any of these incidents."
Two of those collisions involved the agency's trains, while the third involved a TriMet bus.
In addition to releasing the videos, TriMet in November held a news conference with local first responders to help hammer home the importance of remaining alert around crossings.
TriMet's urgent plea was one of many issued in 2015. Over the past year, passenger and freight railroads continued educating communities on crossing safety. As they focused on developing materials that resonated with their target populations, they teamed up with law enforcement agencies and first responders, along with Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI), the national nonprofit organization dedicated to rail safety education. At the same time, railroads devoted resources to update existing crossings or implement new technologies to help prevent accidents.
The calls to bolster safety followed a year of rising incidents near grade crossings. In 2014, there were 2,280 crossing collisions in the United States, marking an 8.8 percent increase compared with the previous year's totals, while crossing fatalities jumped more than 15 percent to 267, according to preliminary Federal Railroad Administration data cited by OLI.
Although the number of people injured in crossing collisions fell in 2014, the figures show that several challenges persist in teaching the public to be more cautious around tracks, OLI officials maintain.
To accomplish that goal, the organization continued promoting its "See Tracks? Think Train!" multimedia campaign, which launched in April 2014.
"We need to work hard to reach people of all age groups," says OLI Director of Communications Libby Rector Snipe. "We're looking at new ways to reach people, whether it’s through digital assets like social media or videos, or more in-person approaches through our network of volunteers.”
Additionally, OLI offers online learning courses tailored for school bus operators and truck drivers.
Union Pacific Railroad's staff opted to aim one recent safety campaign at high-school students taking senior photos on tracks.
In June 2015, the Class I launched a video campaign exclusively on social media channels like Instagram and Facebook that attract people in the target demographic.
Each short video compares the risks of posing for photos on tracks to doing the same on a highway or in the middle of a city street.
"In doing research of the campaign's target audience … it became evident that scare tactics in advertising aren't effective," says UP spokeswoman Kristen South.
Instead, the campaign takes a somewhat humorous look at the risks involved: The tone is casual, but the messaging is urgent. As South puts it, the campaign "played on teens' desire to look 'cool' in front of their peers."
Later in 2015, UP launched another social media-based video campaign. This time, the messaging was more narrative driven: Each vignette told the stories of people in various life situations as they waited for a train to pass a crossing. After the gate arms lift, they proceed safely on their journeys.
"Both campaigns allow UP to engage with audiences we may not have previously reached," says South, noting that the railroad's photo safety campaign garnered national media attention, along with discussions on two popular photography websites.
Like UP and OLI, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) aims to reach some constituents through social media messaging. In 2014, the commuter railroad held a Facebook contest that asked users to answer rail safety questions. Those who answered correctly were entered into a drawing for small rewards, such as OLI merchandise and clothing.
"We get a lot of good feedback on the social media element … but for us that’s only a very small percentage of our target demographic," says VRE's Manager of System Safety and Security Greg Deibler.
To reach others, VRE staff members distribute crossing safety fliers to store owners and managers in local communities.
The safety team at CSX Transportation also takes a targeted approach. The railroad sponsors a campaign called "Play it Safe," which is aimed at 18- to 34-year-old males. Members of that demographic are most likely to be involved in crossing collisions or trespassing incidents, says CSX spokeswoman Kaitlyn Barrett.
The campaign, which has been ongoing for the past decade, promotes rail safety through social media outreach and engagement at sporting events like basketball games and NASCAR races.
Additionally, CSX staff members are doing what they can to respond to crossing incidents when they do occur. Following a train-bus collision at a crossing in Atlanta in spring 2015, for example, the railroad partnered with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and OLI to train more than 250 bus operators on crossing safety practices.
In addition, two MARTA bus supervisors completed OLI training to become authorized volunteers for the organization. This, in turn, allows MARTA to access safety materials that can be incorporated into current training and internal communication programs, says CSX's Barrett.
Meanwhile, leaders at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City are seeking to refine their rail safety messaging in a way that makes sense for local residents. To do that, the agency in late 2015 embarked on a new partnership with OLI.
Together, they are crafting new materials that match the authority’s service territories, says MTA Chief Safety Officer David Mayer.
"Operation Lifesaver’s materials traditionally … have depicted cornfields, silos and freight rail, and that is a message that works well in Middle America," he says. "But here on the East Coast, it just doesn’t feel as relevant."
In a dense urban environment like New York City, a passenger train may occupy a crossing for only seconds, so the messaging needs to be tailored with that in mind, Mayer notes. The scenario is in stark contrast to freight-rail crossings, which trains often block for a protracted period of time.
As a result of its new partnership with OLI, MTA in summer 2015 launched a rail-safety advertising campaign across multiple forms of media, including film, television, newspapers and outdoor billboards. What’s more, the agency unveiled a new safety-focused Web page and shared snippets of the campaign using the #MTASafety hashtag on social media.
The updated campaign fits into the agency’s focus on the "three Es" of crossing safety: education, enforcement and engineering, Mayer says.
Over the past year, the MTA also worked with a firm to conduct a series of engineering assessments at crossings throughout its network. The process involved visiting the intersections to observe, document and take measurements, Mayer says.
The multidisciplinary analyses are aimed at helping the agency’s leaders find the best way to tackle crossing safety.
"It really is an overall systems approach to what’s happening at a given crossing," Mayer says. "The right question is not what can we buy and deploy, but what change makes sense?"
Aside from the analyses, the agency remains focused on carrying out simpler measures, such as ensuring that pavement markers are visible and that other signage is compliant with established criteria, Mayer says.
In Portland, the opening of TriMet's latest light-rail route in September presented yet another opportunity to promote crossing safety.
As trains began running on the Orange Line, the agency undertook a “very intense public education campaign,” TriMet’s Wilkinson says.
At each crossing along the 7-mile alignment, TriMet stationed “safety ambassadors” to inform pedestrians and bicyclists about the new trains passing through, while other agency staff handed out safety pamphlets.
Another way that TriMet and others are working to bolster crossing safety: updating signage, infrastructure and technology.
As part of a five-year safety enhancement project, TriMet crews realigned higher-risk pedestrian crossings that had been at skewed angles. They also enhanced lighting, updated signs, and added audio and visual warnings at the junctions. The agency’s new pedestrian-friendly crossing equipment features signs at a lower height, Wilkinson says.
And at Seattle's Sound Transit, five crossings are being upgraded as part of the Point Defiance Bypass project.
Spearheaded by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the project will allow Amtrak's Cascade trains to run on an inland route away from freight congestion along the waterfront.
Sound Transit owns part of the route, which the agency uses for its Sounder commuter trains.
For its part in the WSDOT project, Sound Transit will add new gates, lights and bells, along with a queue cutter system designed to prevent cars from backing up onto the tracks, says Sound Transit Senior Systems Engineer Andrew Rawls.
As with transit agencies and Class Is, crossing safety requires significant resources among the short-line set, too. Indiana Rail Road Co., for example, renewed a total of 20 crossings at a cost of $750,000 in 2015.
This year, the regional plans to update 35 crossings for $1.5 million, says the railroad’s Vice President of Engineering Peter Ray.
Buckingham Branch Railroad carried out its share of crossing upgrades last year, as well. The short line’s crews completed eight crossing signalization improvements and one completely new installation of lights and gates.
For 2016, the 275-mile short line will install Siemens’ Safetran MS 4000 constant warning predictors at 13 crossings, says President Steve Powell.
Aside from these more "standard" updates, the railroad plans to deploy Pintsch-Tiefenbach U.S. Inc.’s axle-counting system for six crossings along a 9-mile stretch of track shared with Amtrak trains.
Unlike typical crossing devices that are activated by simple resistance on the rail, the system lowers the crossing gates by sensing the wheels on an oncoming locomotive, according to Powell.
"It's technology we’ve never used before," he says.
Rusted rail on this portion of the short line’s track prevents trains from making adequate contact and registering the necessary resistance. As a result, Buckingham Branch hasn’t been able to upgrade speeds on this section of the line.
"Amtrak was having to approach all these crossings being ready to stop in case the gates didn't go down," Powell says. "This technology will eliminate that need."
The short line plans to introduce the new system in summer 2016, he says.
Technology also plays a part in CN's crossing safety strategy. The railroad's signals and communications group has begun employing Siemens’ RailFusion platform to monitor crossings in real time.
The technology helps diagnose reported or immediate issues, and can be used to brief staff before an incident occurs.
Also, the Class I's workers can use the platform to review how existing warning devices are working, says CN spokesman Mark Hallman.
Beyond that, CN isn't straying from the usual rubber, timber and concrete crossing surface components, he adds.
Of course, the best way to ensure safety and prevent incidents is to close crossings. In November 2015, BNSF Railway Co. marked the closure of its 6,000th crossing since 2000, says Steve Neubauer, the Class I's director of field safety support.
What sorts of crossings are good closure candidates? For one, any intersections with low traffic volumes, says Neubauer. BNSF also might close crossings that are not designated as emergency routes, or are "redundant" — those that are near other crossings that allow access to the same roads.
Where it's difficult or impossible to close a crossing, railroads hope to boost safety through their various equipment updates or educational campaigns.
And although distractions abound in the age of smartphones and near-constant communication, the rail safety message remains firm, says TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt.
"It's vital that people just take that moment to be aware," she says.
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