Crashes at railroad crossings prompt new safety effort

Drivers who get stuck on the track at railroad crossings should immediately call the emergency toll-free number posted at the crossing, such as this one at Cherry Valley, Ill., on Aug. 24, 2014.
Drivers who get stuck on the track at railroad crossings should immediately call the emergency toll-free number posted at the crossing, such as this one at Cherry Valley, Ill., on Aug. 24, 2014. McClatchy

Recent deadly railroad-crossing crashes have sparked interest among lawmakers and regulators in improving safety conditions where highways and rail lines intersect.

Since the beginning of February, seven people have died and scores more have been injured in crashes between commuter trains and motor vehicles.

While the number of injuries and fatalities in railroad crossing accidents has fallen by half in the past two decades, 250 people still died and 929 were injured in 2,087 collisions in 2013, the most recent year of complete federal government statistics.

“The reality is that while the overall number of deaths and injuries from grade crossing incidents has come down significantly over the last two decades, this remains a serious problem,” Sarah Feinberg, acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in a statement.

A Feb. 3 collision in Valhalla, N.Y., killed the driver of an SUV and five passengers on a Metro-North train. On Feb. 24, a Metrolink commuter train struck a pickup in Oxnard, Calif. The train’s engineer died of his injuries Tuesday.

Lawmakers have introduced bills to increase the level of federal funding for railroad crossing improvements and reroutings, which has remained flat for a decade. The U.S. Department of Transportation and volunteer organizations are stepping up their efforts to increase law enforcement and public awareness of railroad crossing safety.

“Recent accidents in New York and California are important reminders of our shared challenge to both educate the public about grade crossing safety, and to enforce appropriate behavior around railroad operations,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved a passenger-rail authorization bill that includes $300 million for local governments to initiate railroad crossing improvements and relocations.

Last month, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced legislation to pump up a federal program that provides funds to states to make the crossings safer, which can mean adding warning devices or closing them altogether.

Since 2006, states have received about $220 million a year under the program. The Senate bill would provide another $200 million over four years. The federal government typically pays 90 percent of the cost of railroad-crossing safety improvements.

California, Texas and Illinois account for the most railroad crossing crashes and fatalities and have received the most funding.

In Missouri, where Kansas City and St. Louis are the country’s second and third leading rail hubs, respectively, behind Chicago, railroad crossings and fatalities have fallen dramatically. In 1978, the state saw about 300 crashes, with about 30 people killed. In recent years, Missouri crashes have fallen to fewer than 50 a year, with fewer than 10 fatalities.

The Missouri Department of Transportation spent $18.5 million in federal funds on crossing upgrades last year, more than any other state except California and Texas. Since 2011, the department has increased the number of projects from around 30 to more than 150.

“We’ve done a dramatic turnaround in the rail section to get those funds used,” said Eric Curtit, Missouri’s administrator of railroads. “We could use a lot more.”

There are more than 200,000 locations where roads cross railroads at the same level, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The easiest way to eliminate the hazard is to close the crossing, but that often draws opposition from local officials and residents who may be inconvenienced by it.

Overpasses and underpasses are effective but expensive. Flashing lights and gates can improve crossing safety. Only a third of railroad crossings have both lights and gates, yet such crossings still account for nearly half of train-motor vehicle collisions, according to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit rail-safety educational group.

The crossings in the two recent accidents in California and New York had lights and gates. So did the scene of a fatal collision in Midland, Texas, in November 2012, when a parade float stopped on the track as a train approached at 60 mph. Four veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seated on the flatbed truck were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the two most recent crashes. In its report on the 2012 Texas crash, it faulted the organizers of the parade for not accounting for the crossing in their safety plan and the driver for stopping on the track.

“You have to make sure you can get safely all the way across the crossing before you commit,” said Joyce Rose, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver and a former staff member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Investigators have yet to determine what caused the crashes in California and New York, but as in the earlier Texas crash, the trains struck vehicles that had stopped on the tracks.

Operation Lifesaver works with law enforcement agencies and schools to educate drivers. If drivers can’t avoid getting stuck on the track, Rose said, they should immediately call the emergency toll-free number posted at the crossing. That will alert the railroad dispatcher to stop any train that’s approaching.

If a train is approaching a stopped vehicle, Rose said, its occupants should get out of the vehicle and out of the way as quickly as possible.

“It’s much better to lose your car than lose your life,” she said.

Driving around lowered crossing gates is equivalent to running a stop sign or a red light, and drivers can be ticketed for doing it. Rose said drivers should always obey the warning signals at railroad crossings.

“We want it to be just as automatic as putting on your seat belt,” she said.