CTS Publications

By: Dr. Harvey A. Levine, Director, Crossing to Safety®

The railroad industry is 175 years old and grade-crossing issues are part and parcel of that industry. In 1910, the Interstate Commerce Commission began publishing detailed statistics on railroad operations. Federal involvement in grade-crossing safety began in the 1920’s and following related federal legislation in 1970 and 1973, comprehensive grade-crossing statistics, research and reports became available to the general public. Grade-crossing information readily available to railroads leads to the conclusion that the industry knew the following facts pertaining to developing the positions that: (1) for the most part, grade-crossing safety is a highway issue (2) railroads have no responsibility for identifying safety needs at grade crossings and rectifying those needs, and (3) in virtually all cases, the victims are at fault for their respective collisions:

  1. Railroads have been granted by the public, exclusive licenses to operate through public property and roads.

  2. In obtaining such operating authority, railroads have also been granted the right-of-way, thereby not having to slow down or stop for approaching motor vehicles.

  3. Throughout history, railroads have received significant public assistance and even currently, have special legislative provisions not available to other industries.

  4. In that railroads are privately owned entities crossing through public roadways (grade crossings), they share ownership of these crossings with pubic road authorities.

  5. Most grade crossings are "passive" in that they are not equipped with automated gates and flashing lights.

  6. The overwhelming majority of passive crossings have crossbucks, which are to be interpreted by approaching motorists as “yield” signs.

  7. Research studies and data distributed by the Federal Railroad Administration conclude that on a unit-of-traffic basis, passive crossings are much more dangerous to motorists than are gated crossings.

  8. Motorists have a greater chance of colliding with trains at passive crossings where: (1) their sight is obstructed by vegetation or other structures (2) the geometric design of the crossing inhibits motorists’ ability to see approaching trains (3) the track structure is elevated (4) the crossing is in poor physical condition (5) the locomotive warning device is not properly sounded, and (6) trains block the crossing at night and/or for unreasonable periods of time. Improper train operations also contributed to grade-crossing accidents.

  9. Grade-crossing collisions often result in death and/or serious injury to motorists, but rarely to on-train personnel.

  10. In 1973, the federal government formalized a grade-crossing assistance program that has since allocated billions of dollars to States in order to upgrade safety devices at grade crossings.

  11. The federal program does not preclude railroad from determining on their own, safety needs at grade crossings.

  12. The federal program does not preclude railroads from installing and/or funding improved safety devices at grade crossings, as long as the devices conform to national engineering standards.

  13. While the federal program is a significant factor behind the overall improved safety record at railroad crossings, it is limited in regard to: (1) level of funding (2) method of allocating funds to States (3) level of staff personnel (4) identification of safety needs, and (5) installation of adequate safety devices.

  14. State governments have also contributed monies for grade-crossing improvements, but at a far more modest level than the federal government.

  15. The formula used by States to rank the relative dangers of grade crossings is generally the formula recommended, but not required, by the Federal Railroad Administration. It is largely based on train and motorist traffic volumes (also includes number of track and accidents in prior five years), and does not quantify such factors as motorist sight obstructions.

  16. In 1985, the Federal Highway Administration recommended a set of motorist adequate sight lines at grade crossings, matched to the speed of trains and motor vehicles.

  17. These federally recommended sight lines were adopted, with some modifications, by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and remain in place to this day as generally-accepted national standards.

  18. Despite the national standards, federal law does not directly address the issue of motorist sight obstructions, but rather focuses on railroad vegetation that may block the sight of railroad signs, signals and/or employee inspections.

  19. Similarly, there are very few States that have laws that address motorist sight obstructions at railroad crossings.

  20. Inadequate sight distances remain as a contributory factor to ultra-dangerous grade crossings and ensuing collision, as evidenced by: (1) observations of various parties, including myself, but especially local residents (2) judicial decisions in favor of plaintiffs (3) a 1998 study of the National Transportation Safety Board that concluded that motorist sight obstructions existed at 57% of the grade crossings studied, and (4) State authorities that cite sight obstructions as a factor in determining the need for automated gates and lights.

  21. There is little, if any, organized public pressure to more effective and/or efficient safety at grade crossings, and

  22. If things remain as they are, sight obstructions and other deficient conditions at grade crossings will continue to exist, and motorists will be killed and injured in collisions.



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