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By Associate Editor Angela Cotey and Managing Editor Jeff Stagl
Grade crossing safety has always been a top priority for freight and passenger railroads. But with freight traffic and transit ridership at all-time highs, finding ways to prevent motorists and pedestrians from getting in harm’s way is even more critical.
Unfortunately, the best option — separate tracks from streets and walkways — isn’t feasible for many railroads.
“[Grade separations] are quite costly and we don’t have enough funding to do it,” says Caltrain Deputy Director of Engineering Stephen Chau. “So, we need to make sure our existing crossings are as safe as possible.”
To that end, many freight and passenger railroads are installing a variety of equipment, from products that have been effective for years to recently developed components and systems, such as “second train” warning devices and wayside horns.
Caltrain is incorporating a mix of equipment into a crossing safety improvement program approved in fiscal-year 2006. The commuter railroad plans to upgrade its standards for crossings within its service area, which comprises San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.
The agency recently developed program standards and is beginning to design projects. Caltrain first will focus on San Mateo County, which has the most crossings. In FY2007, Caltrain budgeted $7.5 million for the project.
Under the program, Caltrain will upgrade crossing signage; clear brush to improve sight lines; add signal preemption equipment to connect traffic signals with railroad signals; install median islands to prevent motorists from maneuvering around lowered gates; and install reflector lights along tracks to warn motorists they’re approaching a railroad track rather than an intersection.
“There are some situations where our tracks are parallel to an existing street. Some people get into a right-turn lane and don’t realize it’s not the intersection they’re crossing, but the track,” says Caltrain’s Chau.
In addition, the agency plans to install four-quadrant pedestrian gates and guard rails to channel people through the gates, and add pedestrian exit gates and striping across tracks.
“We have some intersections that are skewed and the railroad humps up over the pedestrian walkway,” says Chau. “In these situations, people don’t know exactly where the other side of the tracks are.”
Preventing pedestrians from crossing tracks — especially at and around stations — is a priority for other transit agencies, as well.
New Jersey Transit is adding supplemental fencing, pylons and signage along tracks at 33 stations. The fencing is designed to channel arriving passengers off the platform and in front of crossing gates, bells and flashing lights to prevent them from crossing tracks when a train is pulling out of a station. The program began in July and is scheduled to be complete by 2007’s end.
At Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), workers are installing a prototype passenger-train warning system at the Rockville and Kensington stations. The agency plans to install the devices at four additional stations. The system features illuminated signs, flashing lights and bells designed to warn pedestrians that a train is coming or parked in the station. In late 2003, the agency implemented the system at Germantown Station along the Maryland Rail Commuter line.
Second line of defense
MTA also is beginning to upgrade crossings along its light-rail system by adding active second train warning devices. The electric light-emitting diode (LED) signs will illuminate when the signal system detects a second train approaching the crossing.
“When a second train activates the crossing before the first train completely clears it, the system knows that, but pedestrians and motorists don’t,” says MTA Deputy Director of Engineering Vern Hartsock. “So, if you’ve just seen a train go by and see that the gates are down, you might think it’s broken and try to go around it. This will give an active indication that another train is coming.”
MTA will implement the warning device at a crossing along Aviation Boulevard near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, then determine other locations for the system.
Both the second and passenger train warning devices are open-type systems designed by MTA that feature components manufactured by several different suppliers.
Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) is trying to improve crossing safety along its light-rail system, too. The 20-year-old system has doubled in size to almost 40 miles during the past three years, so the agency’s crossings feature technology ranging in age from two decades to a few years.
At newer crossings, SacRT integrates gates with block signal systems that indicate whether gates are down when a train leaves a station near a crossing.
“The engineer won’t get the green light to proceed unless the gates are down,” says SacRT Chief Executive Officer Mark Lonergan.
Seeing the light
The agency also is adding illuminated LED right-turn signs at crossings where a road parallels tracks to prevent motorists from mistaking the crossing for an intersection.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Area Transit Authority recently added similar signs on the street-running portion of its Blue Line light-rail system. Last year, the authority installed 59 LED warning signs at all left-turn lanes on Long Beach Boulevard and Pacific Avenue to warn motorists a train is approaching.
A number of freight railroads also are incorporating LEDs into their crossing programs. The roads are installing the lights — which are configured into independent strings and designed to continue providing output even if an individual diode fails — to replace crossing signal and gate-arm lamps.
Today’s LEDs are brighter, not as bulky and easier to focus compared with models marketed several years ago, says Bruce Williams, general director of maintenance of way for Union Pacific Railroad, adding that the Class I is replacing more conventional signal lamps with LEDs than in years past.
At Canadian Pacific Railway, workers are installing 12-inch LED flashing lights and LED gate-arm lamps as part of all new crossing installations, says spokesman Ed Greenberg.
“The LED technology is intended to improve visibility at crossings even further, but in particular during weather-related situations, like fog or snowstorms,” he says.
A range of benefits
The Red River Valley & Western Railroad Co. (RRVW) is installing 12-inch LEDs on crossing signals, too. C&S officials at the 517-mile regional have found the lights are energy efficient and last longer than halogen bulbs, so the railroad is replacing fewer lamps and saving money.
“LEDs are standard for us now,” says RRVW Signal Supervisor George Grage, adding that the regional also has been installing LED gate-arm lamps during the past year. “The lenses don’t get as dirty from road grime, such as the salt and sand spread on roads in wintertime.”
Kansas City Southern also is installing LED signal lamps, especially as part of crossing upgrades and change-outs, and to repair knockdowns, says Assistant Chief Engineer-Signals and Administration Buck Jones.
“There isn’t a single point of failure, they’re easier to align and are brighter to motorists,” he says.
In addition, KCS is determining whether to install stop signs with LEDs or lighted crossbucks to upgrade passive crossings (those with crossbucks only) to active warning crossings. Currently, the Class I is installing crossbucks with reflective strips at a number of Texas crossings to improve visibility.
At the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., improving motorists’ sight lines is key to making warning devices more visible. The 745-mile regional recently purchased a brush cutter to use full time at crossings to remove vegetation blocking sight lines.
But it takes more than improved visibility to prevent crossing accidents. For KCS, “locking down” a crossing by installing raised medians and gates on each side is paying off by discouraging motorists from driving around lowered gates, says Jones.
“A motorist would have to drive on the wrong side of the road to get through the crossing,” he says.
In addition, KCS is working with several state departments of transportation to improve crossing safety as part of corridor projects.
“We look at every crossing in the state and either close it or install advanced warning systems,” says Jones. “In Missouri, we have 80 crossings and we’ve done most of them on our mainline corridor.”
As part of four quiet zones under development in Texas, KCS also is beginning to install wayside horns supplied by Railroad Controls Ltd. The horns are designed to direct a digitally recorded train horn at motorists. A Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) train-horn rule issued in December 2004 enables local governments to establish quiet zones at designated public crossings. To create a zone, a municipality must add gates, wayside horns and/or lights at a crossing.
In November, the Ohio Rail Development Commission authorized Norfolk Southern Corp. to begin engineering work on a project under which the commission, Class I and city of Springfield will upgrade 18 and close five crossings. Calling for the installation of four-quadrant gates at four crossings, and lights and gates with constant warning devices at 14 others, the project will enable Springfield to obtain a quiet zone designation from the FRA.
More quiet zones also are emerging within UP’s network, which includes 26,776 public, 11,783 private and 369 pedestrian crossings. As a result, the Class I is installing more four-quadrant gates and wayside horns than it has in the past five years, says UP’s Williams.
“We expect to see more zones in the next several years in growing communities, like Phoenix and Tucson,” he says.
At CSX Transportation, which maintains more than 30,000 public and private crossings, C&S officials expect remote monitoring systems to become a bigger part of the railroad’s crossing strategy.
In 2006, the Class I began installing the systems — which are designed to electronically monitor equipment health and identify recurring component breakdowns — at new crossings. CSXT plans to install the systems at between 300 and 400 crossings per year. So far, the railroad has installed 36 systems supplied by Safetran Systems Corp. and 21 supplied by GE - Transportation Global Signaling.
“If something is wrong, we have an 800 number posted at every crossing and hope the public calls us and tells us. But it’s better if we know ourselves,” says CSXT Chief Engineer-C&S Craig King. “We’re putting in the systems so we know something is sick at a crossing.”
For the past six years, RRVW has used crossing analyzers to monitor equipment functions. The devices provide a date/time stamp when lights start flashing, gates begin to lower or are horizontal, and warning bells are ringing.
Florida East Coast Railway L.L.C. (FECR) also is using crossing analyzers with remote monitoring capability to record equipment activity at more than 100 crossings.
But C&S officials at the 351-mile regional want to ensure the devices don’t misdiagnose a component, prompting an unnecessary field call for a signal maintainer.
“Supervisors are evaluating the accuracy of remote monitoring data for alarms,” says FECR General Manager-Signal and Communications Andy Fowler. “We want to weed out instances where there are alarms that don’t meet alarm criteria.”
In addition, FECR is replacing motion detectors with GE’s Highway Crossing Processor (HXP) constant warning time control unit.
“We stepped up replacements in 2006, and will do so in 2007 and 2008,” says Fowler.
The HXP is designed to determine a train’s speed and, based on a desired warning time, keep gates lowered for a consistent time period regardless of speed. With motion detectors, gates sometimes are lowered a longer time if a train is moving at 40 mph vs. 60 mph, says Fowler.
Meanwhile, the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. (TC&W) continues to use a highway-rail intersection active warning system (HRI) developed by C3 Trans Systems L.L.C. that the 229-mile short line tested with the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2005.
Installed at 27 low-volume crossings between the Twin Cities and South Dakota, HRI is designed to identify a train approaching a crossing via Global Positioning System technology, as well as maintain communication between components and supply power via solar panels and batteries. TC&W operates nine HRI-equipped locomotives.
Freight and passenger railroads’ efforts to boost crossing safety by installing a variety of equipment are paying dividends. During 2006’s first nine months, the crossing incident rate decreased 3.7 percent and number of crossing incidents dropped 1.2 percent compared with similar 2005 data, according to preliminary FRA statistics.
However, other data shows they still have some work to do. The number of crossing fatalities increased 3.1 percent and trespasser fatalities rose 12.1 percent. So, railroads plan to continue analyzing and installing equipment that best suits a particular crossing’s safety needs.
When it comes to crossing equipment, railroads want affordable and easy-to-install products. Crossing surfaces are no exception.
For the past four years, Transpo Industries Inc. has marketed the Bodan® crossing produced from a polymer concrete material — ideal for crossings with a high volume of truck traffic, says Transpo’s Senior Vice President of Sales Rich Brown. Each Bodan panel is reinforced with a welded steel frame embedded in precast material.
“It has a compressive strength of 17,000 pounds per square inch and a high modulus of elasticity, so it will bend but not break,” says Brown.
In addition, the polymer holds up well in cold climates because it’s a closed-cell molecular material, and resists moisture and salt, he says.
Transpo has installed three Bodan crossings for the Nebraska Department of Roads and late last year, installed one in Boise, Idaho, for the Idaho Transportation Department that featured surface-mounted light-emitting diode flashing lights on the crossing approach.
Holding its own
The Century Group also offers surfaces designed to withstand high traffic loads. The company mixes its own concrete, which features Grade 72 reinforcement — 12,000 pounds per square inch more than standard Grade 60 reinforcement.
This year, Century Group plans to continue developing a flangeway filler material, and install a crossing surface at a turnout for a transit agency that uses concrete ties — “something that, to our knowledge, has never been done before,” says Century Group Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jerry McCombs.
Omni Products Inc. is busy in the R&D department, too. A supplier of concrete and rubber surfaces, the company is developing a concrete product designed to protect other track components in cold climates. Omni Products has obtained a contract from a Canadian transit agency to install the surface, which features a rubber panel covering the fastening system.
“A lot of railroads have problems in areas where they salt the highways; salt gets in the flange area and corrodes the fastening system,” says Omni Products Vice President of Sales Bob Cigrang. “With this system, the rubber completely covers the clips to protect the fastening system.”
Rail-Way Inc. offers concrete and rubber surfaces, as well. The company’s concrete products, which are manufactured using a batch/mix plant, are available in standard eight-foot, six-inch and nine-foot panels, but also can be customized for curved track, turnouts, switches, frogs and diamonds.
Sealing the deal
Rail-Way recently developed a concrete surface in conjunction with a rail seal manufacturer. The surface features Rail-Way’s concrete panel and the other supplier’s seal in place of the standard attached flangeway, providing improved impact absorption and surface sealing properties, according the company.
The company’s rubber surfaces are available in standard sizes and compatible with wood or concrete ties. The panels are easy to install, requiring only a backhoe and three-person crew, and can be lagged down through the rubber so one panel can be replaced without taking out the entire surface.
Meanwhile, HiRail Corp. offers a range of rubber surfaces, including a full-depth surface now available to accommodate 10-foot ties; a pedestrian crossing that features a slip-resistant surface and meets ADA requirements; and Hi-Rail RS rubber rail seal.
Two years ago, the company developed a system to install its full-depth rubber crossing on concrete ties. HiRail places steel rods through channels in the gauge and field pads to create a continuous solid crossing surface and prevent pad separation, says HiRail Vice President Walter Barry.
— Angela Cotey