How to Make Grade Crossings Safer for Everyone

The derailment by a speeding Amtrak train this May in Philadelphia resulting in 8 deaths and over a hundred injuries of passengers has recently dominated the headlines. As spectacular and avoidable as such train accidents are, the majority of the damage and deaths occur on the railroads at grade crossings and trespassers on railroad rights of way. This doesn’t get as much media coverage, but there is plenty that can be done ¬†at grade crossings that can save lives and money.

February 2015 started off with 2 major grade crossing accidents and a third later in March. On February 3rd a Metro North train in Valhalla ,New York crashed into a SUV stranded at a grade crossing. This resulted in the death of the driver of the SUV as well as 5 passengers on the train from a fire fed by gasoline from the SUV and the third rail breaking off in the crash and ramming into the Cab Car of the train.

On February 24th a large pickup truck with a trailer got stuck by a lost driver in the darkness on the tracks near Oxnard, California. This caused an early morning Metrolink train headed for Los Angeles to have 3 of its 4 cars derail with 2 of these 3 cars overturning. Of the roughly 50 people on the train 4 were critically injured, with one, a train operator dying of his injuries a week after the crash.

On March 9th, Amtrak train the Carolinian crashed into an oversized tractor trailer combination 164 feet long moving a modular building with a state police escort in Halifax, North Carolina.The tractor trailer got stuck on the tracks while making a left turn over the tracks. Neither the driver or state police attempted to call the dispatcher to warn the railroad of the truck blocking the tracks. Information to call the railroad in case of an emergency is posted at all grade crossings. Fifty five persons were reported injured in this crash, one was seriously injured.

What these and most accidents involving trains at grade crossings have in common is that the accident was caused by the road vehicle. To reduce such accidents it can’t all be done with major construction of grade separations on the railroads. Even if the money for such major construction was available, such construction would be very disruptive for both the railroads and highways to build many grade separations in a short time. What can be done, more quickly and at much less cost would be major upgrading of existing busy grade crossings with the latest safety equipment.

The top of the line grade crossing protection starts with Quad Gate Barriers. Such grade crossing protection is common for “Quiet Zones” and for higher speed trains for speed above 90 and no higher than 110 miles per hour. With 4 separate crossing guard arms at a Quad Gate crossing, the intersection is sealed off from traffic when a train crosses. To discourage vehicles from entering the intersection after the warning lights and bells go off, medians are placed in the middle of the road at both ends of the tracks. These road medians discourage drivers from trying to go around gates to beat the train.

In addition to the Quad Gates, such advanced grade crossings have sensors to detect vehicles on the tracks between the crossing arms. The gates are timed so there is time for a vehicle on the tracks to clear the crossing before a second crossing arm seals the intersection. If more time is necessary the sensors keeps the exit gate up until a vehicle clears the tracks and then the gate comes down, This is to prevent sealing a vehicle in the crossing with 4 sets of barriers. While not perfect, Quad Gates have a much better safety record than traditional double gate grade crossing protection.

A problem shared with the Metro North, Metrolink and Amtrak accidents was that the grade crossings for all three accidents were blocked before the trains arrived. If these trains had had advanced warning, even for just seconds before the trains operators could see the obstruction, damage and injuries could have been reduced or even prevented. There are sensors that can detect vehicles or people intruding on the railroad rights of way.

There is a wide variety of commercially available sensor systems for railroad rights of way to choose from. Some even include flying drones. These products are not exactly cheap. But expanded use of these types of systems would be cheaper in most cases than full grade separation and could be installed much more quickly. These sensor systems will also make the railroad rights of way safer as well as make rail service for both passengers and freight more reliable.

Another major problem on the railroads are pedestrian deaths.One of the problems with this are that many of these deaths are intentional. This has become a particular problem on Caltrain. The City of Palo Alto is sponsoring a test of a camera system that can detect motion and give an alert of a possible problem. Such system have been used already at airports in restricted areas. It would be expensive to set up this or other such security systems along an entire rail right of way.But this could be useful around stations and grade crossings with much foot traffic where there is easy access to the railroad right of way.

Using automated surveillance systems allows increased coverage of the right of the right of way at a lower cost. Security or Police can be dispatched as needed to keep people off of railroad property. This can discourage people from getting on the right of way, including people with suicidal tendencies. Such automated surveillance could also spot vehicles stuck on the right of way. This information could be sent directly to the locomotive with Positive Train Control systems now being installed on many railroads with passenger service.This could give dispatchers and train operators the margin of time to stop the trains before hitting someone or something with disastrous results.

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