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How do railroads spell “safety” when it comes to grade crossings? With three “e’s” — as in their three-pronged approach to preventing accidents: engineering, education and enforcement. Railroads continue to install new and tried-and-true equipment to prevent accidents, reach out to the public to stress the importance of obeying signs and staying behind gate arms, and work with local police officers to enforce crossings laws. Their “e” efforts appear to be paying off. Through 2007’s first nine months, total crossing accidents and fatalities dropped compared with figures from the same 2006 period. Yet, railroads aren’t significantly closer to their ultimate zero accidents/zero fatalities goal.
The best way to make crossings safer? Eliminate them. Railroads have made strides in that regard, too. They closed hundreds of crossings last year. In the following two articles, railroads discuss their ongoing efforts to make crossings safer and overcome obstacles in the zero/zero pursuit.
Railroads rely on a combination of engineering, enforcement and education to enhance crossing safety
By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
During 2007’s first nine months, highway-rail crossing accidents totaled 2,000 and fatalities totaled 261, according to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data.
The good news: Those numbers were less than the 2,155 incidents and 274 fatalities that occurred during the same 2006 period. The bad news: There were still 2,000 accidents and 261 deaths.
Freight and passenger railroads are on a constant quest to improve grade crossing safety. However, the term “crossing safety” is a bit misleading, says Union Pacific Railroad Director of Public Safety Dale Bray.
“All crossings are safe if you obey the law,” he says.
But because many people don’t, railroads are trying to raise safety awareness and install more effective equipment. Using a combination of the “Three E’s” — engineering, education and enforcement — freight- and passenger-rail safety officers are pushing toward that ultimate goal of zero crossing accidents and fatalities.
“Any incident involving a train and a vehicle or a train and a pedestrian is troubling to everyone involved — the communities, the victim, the victim’s family and the railroad,” says Helen Sramek, president of Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit organization that aims to increase public awareness of crossing safety. “We need to find ways to keep our message top of mind.”
Putting up barriers
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), in partnership with the Federal Railroad Administration and Norfolk Southern Railway, is putting crossing safety front and center — literally.
Last month, the parties began testing the nation’s first retractable crossing safety barrier system, which is designed to deploy barricades along the road’s center line and in front of the crossing when a train approaches.
Installed in Van Buren Township and developed by Intelligent Perimeter Systems (IPS), the system features retractable delineators housed in self-contained, modular cartridges recessed in the ground. When a train approaches a crossing, the barriers are electronically deployed. A series of yellow posts rise from the center line of the road, and red posts elevate in front of the crossing. The barriers are set about 10 feet into the ground and raise up about 30 inches when activated.
The barriers are made of a hard nylon material that will break or bend if a car attempts to drive through them. The system is meant to deter rather than prevent motorists from driving around crossing gates, says Mike Bedore, MDOT’s rail capital programs manager.
“But when [the barriers] are up, they look pretty imposing,” he says.
Bedore approached the FRA about conducting the test after his former boss saw the barriers at a trade show. MDOT, FRA and NS will test and monitor the barricades for 17 months.
At commuter railroad Metrolink, officials are using a range of crossing equipment to improve crossing safety as part of a sealed corridor program, which calls for upgrading all crossings within a designated track segment.
In August, the commuter railroad launched the $100 million program. Metrolink is improving 63 crossings along 65 track miles on the Ventura County and Antelope Valley lines by installing four-quadrant gates, longer gate arms, pedestrian crossings that channel people through a “Z” configuration (which forces them to look in both directions), median separators, locked gates and/or fencing.
“It’s a comprehensive strategy to protect not only our passengers and trains, but motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and neighboring land users,” says Metrolink Assistant Executive Officer Steve Wylie.
Individual projects within the sealed corridor are in various stages of design, and work will completed as funding becomes available, says Wylie.
Meanwhile, the agency is working to develop crossing design standards for engineers.
“It won’t completely be a cookie-cutter approach — every crossing is different,” says Wylie. “It will provide guidance like, ‘If you see circumstances such as X-Y-Z, consider this kind of approach.’”
The standards also will help guide the design of another large-scale crossing improvement program. Orange County, which is served by Metrolink, is developing a $60 million program that calls for upgrading 53 crossings. To be funded through the county’s Measure M half-cent transportation improvement sales tax, the projects will come “fast and furious” since funding already is available, says Wylie.
“They’re looking to increase commuter-rail service to a level that could be a train in each direction every half hour, and communities along the corridor will be looking for substantial grade crossing safety enhancements,” he says.
Similar to the sealed corridor, the Orange County improvements could range from installing traffic signal pre-emption systems to pedestrian gates, fences and railings. Work is scheduled to be complete by 2010.
In New York, a commuter railroad plans to install bigger and brighter lights to boost crossing safety. MTA Metro-North Railroad’s five-year capital plan includes $1 million to install 12-inch light-emitting diode (LED) lights at older crossings. The bulbs offer improved visibility and last up to three times longer than standard crossing lights, according to Metro-North.
But what happens if a crossing bulb burns out? Or a gate arm breaks? Like most railroads, CSX Transportation relies on the public or train crews to report equipment problems at one of the Class I’s 13,000 crossings. Oftentimes, motorist won’t take the time to call the 800-number posted at CSXT’s crossings if there’s a problem. So, the Class I has installed crossing monitoring systems at 220 crossings.
The system features cellular communications and electronic monitoring capabilities that enable the crossing to “talk” to the railroad’s central headquarters when equipment is operating outside of set parameters.
“Now, the crossing will call us long before the public does,” says Craig King, chief engineer, communication and signals.
A quieter alternative
In New Mexico, residents are calling for quiet zones along the new Rail Runner Express commuter-rail line, which means crossing enhancements need to be made so train engineers don’t have to blow their horns. So, the New Mexico Department of Transportation and Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG), which operate Rail Runner, are installing new medians featuring “unmountable curbs” at five crossings and a four-quadrant gate at one crossing in Albuquerque’s north valley.
“We’re extending the median to the track and raising the curb so cars can’t get over it and go around gates,” says MRCOG Executive Director Lawrence Rael. “It’s really more like roadway work.”
But sometimes, roadwork can be just as important to crossings safety as the latest technology. That’s why many railroads replace crossing surfaces as part of their maintenance programs to provide motorists with a smooth driving surface.
In 2007, UP replaced more than 3,200 crossing surfaces; the railroad has averaged about 3,000 surface replacements annually the past several years, says Director of Industry and Public Projects Steve Berki.
The Class I also posts an 800-number at all crossings so if motorists drive over a rough surface, they can call the railroad’s response management communications center to report it. A UP crew then evaluates the surface and determines if it needs to be replaced.
The railroad installs mostly concrete surfaces. The panels are fairly easy to remove and install, which means a crossing doesn’t have to be closed for long, says Berki, adding that concrete surfaces also are smoother, more durable and easier to maintain.
Durability is a key reason why CSXT has switched from rubber and asphalt crossings to timber and asphalt crossings in recent years. The railroad is installing Burke-Parsons-Bowlby Corp.’s crossing timbers. Like UP, the Class I replaces surfaces as part of its MOW program.
“We’ve found the rubber rail seal didn’t hold up to traffic,” says David Clark, CSXT’s engineer of maintenance-of-way standards. “The rubber is very flexible, so there’s nothing rigid between the crossties under the rail seal, and we were seeing a lot of failure. The timber gives stronger support near the rail on top of the ties.”
Engineering techniques and crossing upgrades aren’t the only ways railroads are boosting safety. Enforcement and education are effective means, too.
In June, UP installed photo enforcement systems at three crossings in Grand Prairie, Texas. The systems help remind motorists to slow down and obey crossing laws.
“It’s like the red light enforcement in any city, except we’re looking for crossing violations,” says UP’s Bray.
The enforcement is working. By October, violations had dropped 61 percent, with local police officers issuing 140 citations that year vs. 350 in June. In addition, there have been no collisions at any of the crossings.
UP is working with Grand Prairie officials to install the systems at two more crossings. In addition, 17 communities are testing the cameras and several others have shown interest, says Bray.
The Class I also invites law enforcement officers onto trains to catch violators. Under an “Officer on a Train” program, officers report violations to policemen sitting in vehicles near a crossing, who then pull over and cite violators.
During the past two years, UP has increased program enforcement by 160 percent, and in the past year, 5,000 citations have been issued, says Bray.
UP tries to educate the law enforcement community on crossing compliance, as well. Last year, the Class I held more than 3,000 classes to teach police officers how they can help prevent crossing incidents.
Meanwhile, many other railroads and transit agencies are aiming educational efforts at school children. Rail Runner conducts outreach programs at elementary schools, handing out coloring books and information to students in hopes they learn more about crossing safety and go home and share the information with their parents, says MRCOG’s Rael.
Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp. (Metra) distributes pencil kits emblazoned with safety messages to all public elementary schools in its six-county service area. The railroad also conducts school presentations, provides educational videos, runs newspaper ads and makes onboard safety announcements to encourage parents to pass safety messages on to their children.
In addition, Metra in September 2006 launched a poster contest for students in kindergarten through 12th grades. Students submit artwork that illustrates safe practices around tracks and trains. Winning designs are used to create annual safety posters, which are distributed to schools, libraries and municipalities.
Ultimately, how railroads and transit agencies boost crossing safety — be it through the latest equipment, an outreach program or routine maintenance — isn’t as important as that they’re doing it. If accidents and fatalities continue to decrease with each passing year, railroad safety officers know they’re making a difference.
“Public safety to us is all about our families, friends and communities in which we operate, and it’s really key for us to protect them through enforcement, education and engineering,” says UP’s Bray. “We’ve ramped up in those areas and are seeing an improvement.”
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By Walter Weart
Grade crossing collisions date back to the earliest days of railroading. An Aug. 23, 1887, New York Times article on crossing fatalities suggested closures were one way to prevent collisions.
Fast-forward more than 120 years and that recommendation still holds up as the best way to eliminate accident risks. As of mid-December, there were 84,598 public and 86,948 private crossings in the United States, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Although railroads and state and local governments are trying to boost safety by employing emerging crossing technologies — from four-quadrant gates to wayside horns to barricade systems — a closure is the only method that completely keeps motorists out of harm’s way.
The FRA long has encouraged state and local governments and railroads to reduce the number of crossings nationwide by 25 percent. They’ve made progress. Between 1990 and mid-2007, 62,131 crossings were eliminated — a 21.2 percent reduction. But more redundant crossings need to be closed, the FRA says.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) identifies the elimination of redundant crossings as a high priority in its revised “Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Handbook,” which was released in August 2007. The handbook recommends criteria railroads and governments should use when selecting which crossings to close on a main, branch or spur line.
However, the final decision typically rests at state and local levels, bringing political red tape and constituents’ wishes into the closure process, railroads say. There’s one word that best describes the biggest obstacle facing roads: “politics,” says BNSF Railway Co. Director of Public Projects and Field Engineering Lyn Hartley.
Local residents most often cite inconvenience as their main objection and pressure elected officials to keep a crossing open, says Michael Williams, director of corporate communications for Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns 47 regionals and short lines.
Adds Clarence Scott, director of rail safety for the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT): “We see local opposition from people who are used to following their regular routes, and from emergency service providers who may also object.”
To overcome local opposition, railroads try to convince government authorities the safety benefits of a closure outweigh constituents’ concerns. And local officials, in turn, attempt to promote those benefits to residents.
Railroads and local governments also could pursue a crossing “consolidation” instead of “closure” — a word that has negative connotations and suggests elected officials are taking something away from constituents, according to a joint FRA-FHWA publication. Under a consolidation, several crossings in an area are analyzed and the one deemed redundant is closed.
In New York, NYSDOT and other state officials have been working together with railroads to eliminate more crossings, sometimes through the consolidation approach.
“In rural areas, we look to see if a lightly used crossing can be consolidated with other nearby ones, allowing us to eliminate a crossing,” says NYSDOT’s Scott.
New York also relies on a corridor approach, which calls for analyzing a series of crossings in an urban area and developing a plan to close some of them, and update or add warning devices at others, based on the best use of available funding and synergies gained by eliminating redundancies.
BNSF, which has more than 30,000 crossings system-wide, uses the corridor approach, too.
In 2007, the railroad closed about 450 crossings, boosting the total number of eliminated crossings to 3,750 since the Class I implemented a closure program in 2000. In 2008, BNSF plans to close several hundred more crossings, as well as reach a significant milestone.
“We expect to close our 4,000th crossing during the third quarter,” says BNSF’s Hartley.
The railroad’s closure program incorporates land use and crossing changes as urban areas grow. The railroad also works with states to consider every option for each crossing, including a closure; relocating a road; improving a crossing angle, approach grade or sight lines; or installing center medians or active warning devices.
Although each state has its own closure rules, Colorado and Nebraska last year passed similar legislation that makes it easier to close a passive crossing, says Hartley. Both states now offer an expedited procedure to close any public or private crossing that’s located within one-quarter mile of a crossing equipped with active warning devices.
Currently, each state is defining the implementation process, says Hartley.
Meanwhile, Kansas City Southern Railway Co. (KCSR)
officials are working with state and local authorities to close as many public crossings as possible, as well as with landowners to eliminate more private crossings.
Since 2004, the railroad has closed 35 public and 25 private crossings. During the next two years, KCSR expects to close 25 more public crossings and ramp-up a private crossing closure program.
Ahead of the curve
Union Pacific Railroad also is pursuing more closures. The Class I had planned to close 450 crossings in 2007. As of mid-December, the railroad had surpassed that goal by reaching No. 460.
UP’s closure strategy includes the corridor approach. The Class I works with states to identify closure candidates in certain areas.
“While we try to close those redundant and/or unnecessary crossings, every one is evaluated separately,” says UP Director of Industry and Public Projects Steve Berki.
A short-line holding company is trying to eliminate more crossings, as well.
RailAmerica Inc., which owns 41 U.S. and Canadian railroads, analyzes multiple crossings in close proximity or seldom-used crossings as potential candidates as long as a closure wouldn’t affect public safety, says Vice President Charlie Patterson.
But as suburban areas continue to develop, the construction of new crossings is becoming as big an issue as the closure of existing ones.
“We work with state and local agencies to see if we can relocate a crossing rather than build a new one, and we also try to close two crossings for every new one,” says BNSF’s Hartley.
A private matter
Another developing issue: private crossing safety, which is drawing more federal attention. The FRA is re-examining options to prevent collisions at private crossings, including closures and consolidations. The agency is holding a series of public hearings to review private crossing practices, the adequacy of warning devices and merits of a more uniform safety approach.
One crossing safety option to consider is a grade separation, which eliminates the interface between a train and highway traffic. BNSF and the city of Olathe, Kan., recently revised plans for an underpass so the parties could eliminate four crossings without spending significantly more than the original estimate, says Hartley.
Because of the location of the tracks and topography, the railroad and city could raise the tracks and close three more crossings instead of just the one crossing originally pegged for elimination, he says.
But grade separations often come with a high price tag. A grade separation completed six years ago in Mineola, N.Y., involving MTA Long Island Rail Road cost about $115 million, says NYSDOT’s Scott.
“And another project one mile away that will be finished this year will cost about $80 million,” he says. “Long Island Rail Road operates more than 250 trains a day in this area.”
So, closures remain the most viable — and most rewarding — option when it comes to crossing safety.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.