Railroad Safety

"What Can I Do?"
Here Are Six Steps That Experts Say Should Be Taken:

  1. National Standards need to be developed to determine which crossings are dangerous, and what steps are necessary to make them safe (Efforts by the FRA to explore national standards were suspended in August of 1997 for "lack of data".

  2. Communities need to examine their crossings before an accident occurs to determine which ones need to be upgraded or closed. It shouldn't take a tragedy to get a dangerous crossing fixed.

  3. States need to invest a single government agency with the authority to make decisions about railroad crossings. Frequently, railroads own the tracks, governments own the highways, and no single agency is looking at the intersection.

  4. Approval and installation of gates and lights need to be much quicker. At a crossing already deemed dangerous, the current average from initiation is two or three years. Working with state and railroad officials, Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) created a program that reduced the approval time in Ohio to nine months. Other states should follow.

  5. More money should be targeted for rail crossings. States with a small population but a large number of dangerous crossings should receive more money to target this problem.

  6. Perhaps the most important, even with safety measures in place, drivers need to be cautious.

—From Readers Digest, February 1998, Bob Trebilcock

Railroad Safety Questions and Answers

Q: What about the railroad industry claim that railroads are safer now than ever before?
A: Every ninety minutes there is a train on motor-vehicle accident/incident in the United States. More people are killed in railroad crossing accidents each year than in commercial airline accidents. The safest year in railroad history (1999) 402 people were killed, 1,369 were seriously injured. The number of Americans dying each year in train-vehicle collisions has remained about the same since 1984, despite the $4 billion the federal government has spent in the past 22 years to make crossings safer. The death toll clings to about 500 a year. Nine or more times per week a truck (with trailer) and a train collide.

A train carrying hazardous materials runs off the tracks and spills its load on average once every two weeks.

“The number of train derailments has increased by nearly 20 percent over the last four years. Both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Department of Transportation’s inspector general have found that poorly maintained track and inadequate inspections by the railroads could be partly to blame.“ The number of railroad-industry inspectors has been reduced and the federal and state governments have only 550 people to make sure the industry is adequately checking 230,000 miles of track.” (“Derailments up 20pct. in four years”-Associated Press article by Jonathan D. Salant – U.S. & World 3/29/2001)

“Safety is as good as it gets – on paper,” said L.P. King Jr., general chairman of the Conductors’ Committee of the United Transportation Union. “The railroad is the judge, jury and prosecutor.” (“A Crucial Conflict-NS’s Safety Record Honored and Maligned”-Roanoke Times article by Lois Calirie 1/24/1999)

Q: Have the number of fatalities gone down?
A: “Nationwide almost 200,000 railroad crossings do not warn drivers when a train is coming. In these places, there are no lights, no gates, only a roadside sign called a crossbuck.” “Technology has made trains a lot faster now, but a federal study shows each year more than two-thousand Americans never make it across those tracks. They end up colliding with trains. About 250 of them are killed.” (“Missing Signals” NBC5.com by Renee Ferguson 3/1/99)

RAILROAD-CROSSING ACCIDENTS IN OHIO SINCE 1975
#
Total Crossings
Public Crossings
Private Crossings
Year
1975
1976
1977
1978
1979

1980
1981
1982
1983
1984

1985
1986
1987
1988
1989

1990
1991
1992
1993
1994

1995
1996
1997
1998
1999

2000
2001
2002
2003
2004

2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011*
2012*
Accidents
756
850
929
945
883

709
584
536
467
496

473
428
395
418
430

327
324
290
277
240

239
186
178
154
146

148
140
141
124
135

133
127
120
95
63
73
76 (12)
73 (4)

Killed
51
71
59
83
64

64
52
49
48
50

58
55
67
46
66

58
55
47
45
38

36
14
26
15
21

15
22
26
13
14

8
17
8
12
9
5
5 (2)
9 (1)
Injured
247
314
336
314
309

268
107
187
183
190

218
139
137
170
190

147
138
99
97
85

82
63
46
45
59

38
40
35
47
33

36
35
40
34
21
15
30 (5)
25 (2)
Accidents
711
825
882
889
834

658
547
494
437
460

438
399
375
392
404

309
306
272
259
229

220
174
172
142
127

138
123
127
115
116

122
107
114
75
49
62
57
67
Killed
48
65
56
78
61

63
52
46
48
49

56
55
67
45
66

57
54
47
43
37

34
13
26
14
19

15
22
21
12
13

7
11
8
10
1
4
2
8
Injured
242
309
328
309
297

256
172
178
173
180

185
136
135
164
183

141
131
94
94
82

79
61
45
44
53

38
40
34
44
31

32
32
40
29
16
12
21
23
Accidents
45
25
47
56
49

51
37
42
30
36

35
29
20
26
26

18
18
18
18


19
12
6
12
19

10
17
14
9
19

11
16
6
13
8
8
7
2
Killed
3
5
3
5
3

1
0
3
0
1

2
0
0
1
0

1
1
0
2
1

2

0

2

0
0
5
1
1

1
3
0
0
3
1
1
0
Injured
7
11
8
5
12

12
5
9
10
0

33
3
2
6
7

6
7
5
3


3
3
2

6

0
0
1
3
2

4
3
0
3
3
2
4
0

*As of 1/13/13
()= Includes "Other"

Source: Federal Railroad Administration, Website FRA.DOT.GOV, Safety Data, Highway-Rail Crossing Accidents, Query FRA Crossing Accident Data. Statistics are based on voluntary reporting by railroads on a continual basis. Stats may vary and change as information is received.

Q: Are the railroads proactive when it comes to public safety?
A: “It’s not the railroad’s duty to keep people who cross their tracks safe. It’s the public good that is a result of avoiding the accident, so the public good should be paid by the public.” (Chas. Dettmann, Vice President of Safety – AAR, “Missing Signals", NBC5.com by Renee Ferguson, 3/1/99)

“The railroad chose not to pay for improvements itself, waiting instead for government funding, which is its normal practice, the Supreme Court said.” (“Punitive Award in Railroad Crossing Accident” – Associated Press, Union Pacific vs. Alcorn, News Tribune 5/30/01)

“BNSF was aware that the crossing was dangerous as far back as 1975 and 1976, when other non-fatal accidents occurred there, the plaintiff argued. But in the time since, the railroad did nothing to correct the problem.” (“Jury Orders BNSF to Pay $6 Million” – Billings Gazette)

“This railroad, like so many big corporations, made an economic decision to be reactive instead of proactive.” said Jim Frasier. “If Union Pacific had stepped up and acted responsibly, performing its duty to maintain safety along its right-of-way, this tragedy would never have occurred.” (“Railroad Crossing Claims Three Lives Before Safety Upgrade”, Case File, Certiorari, Summer, 1998)

“The railroads don’t spend their own money to improve crossing safety because they believe, and courts have upheld, that crossing safety equipment is a public responsibility.” Tom White AAR spokesman, Journal & Courier, 7/7/02 “Gates Have Track Record of Saving Lives”.

Q: Isn’t it always the motorist’s fault if they are involved in an accident? How could they not see or hear the train?
A: “There are approximately 160,000 public highway-railroad intersections, of which only 20% have gates. And even when there are audible warning devices, they may 'fail' to meet their objective of alerting motorists to an oncoming train because of highway vehicle design and environmental factors.” As a result, more than 90 percent of all rail-related fatalities involved either grade crossings or trespassers, and of these deaths approximately 60 percent occur at crossings with only passive warning devices.” (NTSB Safety Study, July 21, 1998)

“Many people think rail safety education is the answer, but how do you educate the motorist who can’t see or hear an oncoming train?” (Gary Long, Transportation Engineering Coordinator, University of Florida)

“It’s been known for decades that the more signals you put at a crossing, the less likelihood you have of collisions between vehicles and trains.” (Theodore E. Cohn, Professor of Vision Science and Bioengineering, University of California, “Rail Gates Coming at Site of Fatal Collision”, San Francisco Chronicle, 7/17/2001)

Q: The only cause for train/car accidents is driver carelessness, trying to "beat the train”, or ignorant and impatient drivers.
A: In order for crossing accidents to be prevented in the future, common stereotypes used by the media and general public must be eliminated. The following are ALL factors that can cause rail crossing accidents:

  • Lack of protected crossings (gates)
  • Sight obstructions such as: (trees and tall/thick vegetation on railroads right-of-way blocking motorists’ view, battery box, buildings, other trains, etc.)
  • Physical layout of crossing (humped, double tracks, curved track)
  • Roadway alignment with tracks
  • Automated safety equipment malfunctions (gates up-train coming, gates down for extended periods of time-no train, short-time warnings) The Texas Division of Emergency Management’s Operations Center received 14,534 calls reporting problems with crossings in 1997. That’s over 1,211 calls a month.
  • Railroads not following safety procedures (disconnected equipment, flagmen, blowing whistle, exceeding speed limits, etc.)
  • No uniformity for crossing protection from state to state (Private crossings often have no signs or protection, gates and lights, lights only, crossbuck only, Buckeye crossbuck (Ohio), stop sign only, or nothing at all)
  • Driver’s behavior to proceed without extra caution and a heightened awareness to “Always Expect a Train"

Q: If I come to a unprotected crossing (crossbuck only) I should know a train is coming because I’ll hear the horn or whistle?
A. Whistle posts are placed without regard to train speeds or whistle audibility at the crossing. Regulations for horns, bells, and whistles were not based on the ability of people to hear them, but rather are statutorily based on the distance from the crossing. Many drivers involved in accidents don’t hear a train’s horn until 2 seconds or less before impact.

Law requires the sequence to begin a quarter-mile from the crossing and be repeated until the engine of the train occupies the intersection, but they don’t consider the masking effect of local factory noise, diesel truck engines, school kids, motorcycles, modern sound- proof cars, and other external influences on the ability of a motorist to hear a whistle.

SWIFT DEVELOPMENT ACT OF 1994 – Required locomotive horns or whistles be sounded upon approaching every public grade crossing except where: 1) No significant risk to persons; 2) Use of horn as warning device is not practical; or 3) Supplemental Safety Measures (SSM) fully compensate for the absence of the audible warning provided by a horn or whistle. Most states have statutes or regulations requiring trains provide an audible warning on approach to public grade crossings. HOWEVER, THERE IS NO FEDERAL REQUIREMENT.

Q: There are laws and regulations requiring the railroads to be responsible for public safety?
A. The railroads are privately owned entities funded with public funding, which includes land surveys, rights of eminent domain, massive land grants, low-interest loans, public stock purchases, and grants of financial assistance. They have a shared responsibility for ensuring the safety of the public forced to cross their tracks. However, railroad law was developed during the industrial expansion. Millions of acres were given to railroads because of massive corruption and the outright control of state legislatures. In most states, localities have no control of the tracks going through their communities. The only source of relief is with state agencies, which often lack the power to force the railroads to comply.

“The Federal Railroad Administration has been asleep at the wheel. They have allowed the railroads to regulate themselves with respect to highway crossings.” Rick Vuenick, legal policy director for Citizen Action, Special Project: Railroad Crossings—Tragedy on the Tracks, Gannett News Service, 5/15/2000.

Q. When gates and lights are installed at a dangerous crossing, do the railroads pay for the equipment and installation since they own the tracks?
A. No. Taxpayer dollars (federal/state) for the most part pay for the safety devices. Even though the average upgrade project costs approximately $150,000, and federal/state taxpayer funds are used, there is no competitive bidding process. The railroads submit a cost breakdown (material, labor, plus additives) and states pay. There is no agency making sure we as taxpayers are getting the best for our tax dollars.





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