February 21, 2020
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Railroad grade crossing incidents are the second leading cause of leading cause of all rail-related deaths in the United States, according to Federal Railroad Administration data, yet there may not be enough funding available to make such crossings safer – an issue discussed during a House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on February 5.

[Above photo by the NTSB.]

“The last time this committee held a hearing to examine grade crossing issues was 15 years ago. A lot has changed since then,” explained Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House T&I committee in his opening remarks.

Rep. DeFazio

“States and localities have tried to address some of the grade crossing issues they face but have a hard time keeping up – often with little financial support from the federal government or railroads,” he added. “While the railroads advocate for closing more grade crossings, these projects often aren’t realistic solutions in densely populated communities that have been built around rail lines.”

Rep. DeFazio noted that grade crossing separation projects can increase capacity and free-flowing movement for both trains and vehicles, while reducing vehicle-train conflict and increasing safety. Yet they can be expensive, he emphasized, and with only $245 million available nationwide this year for projects through the Section 130 Railway-Highway Grade Crossing Program, many states struggle to cover the costs of multi-million dollar projects.

[Editor’s note: the FRA launched a dedicated web page for the public and law enforcement to report blocked highway-rail grade crossings in late December of 2019.]

“As a result, we plan to provide more funding opportunities for these larger grade crossing safety projects through rail safety grants in the Rail Title of the Surface Reauthorization bill,” Rep. DeFazio noted.

FRA’s Karl Alexy

Karl Alexy, the FRA’s associate administrator for railroad safety and its chief safety officer, said in his testimony that trespassing on railroad property and grade crossing incidents together account for 97 percent of all fatalities along the nation’s railroad rights-of-way.

“Over the past 30 years, grade crossing fatalities have decreased by over 60 percent, but it is not enough,” he said. “FRA believes these accidents, and resulting injuries and fatalities are preventable. Thus improving grade crossing safety and preventing trespassing on railroad rights-of-way are top priorities.”

And states are at the forefront of that prevention effort, said Rachel Maleh, executive director of the non-profit Operation Lifesaver, Inc.

OLI’s Rachel Maleh

“One of the most visible results of our partnerships with FRA, the Federal Highway Administration, and Federal Transit Administration, are the competitive rail safety grants that OLI awards to state Operation Lifesaver programs, commuter railroads and rail transit agencies around the U.S.,” she said in her testimony.

“For example, in 2019, OLI used FRA funding to award rail safety grants to 13 state programs through a competitive process. Included were states that rank among the top 15 for grade crossing and trespass incidents,” Maleh noted. “OLI last year also used FTA funding to award competitive rail transit safety grants to 10 transit agencies in eight states. This federal funding truly is making a difference in communities across the nation.”

Photo by the North Dakota DOT

Yet she emphasized that while the number of highway-rail crossing collisions, deaths and injuries has dropped considerably over the past five decades, it’s “still a startling fact” that about every three hours in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train.

“Clearly, too many people don’t believe they must ‘always expect a train.’ And too many drivers fail to understand that a train cannot stop quickly; they don’t know that an average freight train takes a mile and a half to come to a stop,” Maleh said. “[And] these incidents can tie up crossings for hours, wreaking havoc on traffic in communities and impeding the flow of commerce. [So] each time a potentially catastrophic incident at a crossing is prevented, lives are saved, injuries are avoided, and communities are safer.”

editor@aashto.org

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