Where the rail meets the road
June 26th, 2012
Lincoln, NE – The number of collisions between trains and cars at railroad crossings has vastly decreased over the past 30 years. Changes in engineering and technology have made crossings safer, but railroad officials are counting on drivers taking safety seriously to keep the trend going.
The scene is repeated thousands of times each day on Nebraska’s nearly 6,000 public and private road crossings along more than 3,000 miles of railroad tracks. Bells begin clanging. Red and white arms fall across the road to hold back traffic as a train goes rumbling past.
In 1975, there were more than 12,000 crashes at rail crossings nationwide. Since then, the number of collisions dropped, down to around 2,000 in 2010. The number of people killed in those accidents went down from around 900 in 1975 to around 250 in 2010, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
This trend has held true for Nebraska, as well, said Ellis Tompkins, rail and transportation engineer at the Nebraska Department of Roads.
“Back in the early 1980s, we were probably averaging in the neighborhood of 20 to maybe even 25 fatalities a year at public grade crossings,” Tompkins said. “It’s gone down significantly over the years. In 2009 we had four, in 2010, two, and in 2011, one.”
Dozens of viaducts have been built to separate traffic at some of the busiest intersections. There are also fewer public crossings overall – 4 percent of Nebraska’s have been closed in the last 10 years. Tompkins also credited new computer systems at many crossings intended to ensure that safety gates consistently go down about 30 seconds before a train passes through.
“This is a huge improvement, because under the old type of circuitry, the signals were set according to the fastest train,” he said. “So then if you have a 25 mph train, those gates may be down two or three minutes before that train arrives. And now you have a driver that looks up and down the tracks and says, Why are these gates down? I don’t see any train.’ And they go around.”
Drivers can be ticketed for going around the gates, but the real risk is a collision. A full-speed train can travel a mile or more before its emergency brakes bring it to a stop. Railroaders compare the destruction of a train versus a car to a car versus a soda can.
Steve Neubauer, director of field safety and support with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, saw the risks drivers take first-hand when he was a train engineer.
“I can’t tell you how many times the heart’s pounding ,and I’m watching off in the distance, and I’m traveling at sometimes 55 mph, sometimes 70 mph, and I see this driver go around the gates, and there’s nothing I can do,” Neubauer said. “I’m blowing the whistle. I’ve got my bell going. If that driver gets in front of me all I can do is put on the emergency brakes, and from that point on I’m a spectator.”
While drivers are less likely to be hit by a train today, the collision is more likely to be deadly. In recent years, about 12 percent of car/train crashes across the country ended with fatalities, up from seven percent in 1975. That’s a 60 percent jump.
Train operators are usually safe from physical harm, but they may not come out entirely unscathed. Harry Stewart coordinates a peer support program for Union Pacific and has found that, for train workers, the trauma and stress of witnessing a collision may be unforgettable.
“We just try to get them to a level where they cope with it, because their livelihood is on those trains,” Steward said. “And we want them to be able to return to service, and do it with all of their focus being on what they’re doing and not having intrusive recall on the incident that they were involved in.”
Most crossings don’t actually have the bells and whistles of active warning systems. Instead, they’re marked by white cross bucks, the familiar X-shape railroad signs.
But even in remote areas, dozens of trains may pass by. In January 2012, a 19-year-old freshman from the University of Nebraska at Kearney was killed while driving through a crossing marked only by cross bucks. It was one of two deaths at Nebraska highway crossings so far this year.
Having lights and gates at every crossing may be ideal, but it’s just too expensive, Tompkins with the Department of Roads said.
“If you’re dealing out on the Union Pacific double main line, you’re talking about between a half a million and three-quarters of a million dollars,” he said. “(For) each crossing.”
Nebraska budgets about $3 million in state and federal funding toward crossings each year. About half of that goes toward new viaducts; the other half goes toward crossing equipment. The Federal Railroad Administration’s Ron Ries believes safety also depends on drivers being aware. Improvements in crossing technology are irrelevant, he said, if they’re ignored.
“Roughly half of the grade crossing collisions that happen are happening at crossings that have automatic warning devices, either flashing lights, or flashing lights and gates,” Ries said. “So that’s one reason why engineering solutions by themselves don’t solve the problem.”
Ries and other officials are pleased there are fewer crashes. But to continue a trend of safer rail crossings, they suggest it’s up to drivers to take fewer risks behind the wheel.