CTS Publications


By: Dr. Harvey A. Levine, Director, Crossing to Safety®

After scathing articles in the New York Times over the past year that were, among other things, highly critical of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in regard to its railroad-crossing practices; after similar criticisms by The Angels On Track Foundation’s educational subsidiary, Crossing To Safety; several United States Senators; the Attorney General of New York; former FRA employees, and other safety experts; after the FRA Administration was virtually forced to resign following a finding by the United States Department of Transportation Inspector General that she was too close to the railroad industry; and in the face of an increased number of accidents and deaths from railroad-crossing accidents in 2004 – FRA has responded. In its “Action Plan For Addressing Continual Railroad Safety Issues” (May 16, 2005), FRA has identified the steps it plans to take in order to improve its efforts in the area of railroad-crossing safety. As discussed below, FRA’s so-called “plan” is nothing new. It offers nothing that should not have already been implemented, is shallow and narrow, and fails to come to grips with the major issues and problems inherent in railroad-crossing safety.

FRA gets its plan off to a wayward start by blaming the increased accident rate in 2004 on traffic. As FRA states: “. . . the growth in rail and motor vehicle traffic continues to present challenges, as evidenced by an increase in crossing fatalities in 2004 over 2003.” But traffic has been increasing for years and the accident rate had been falling. What FRA consistently fails to mention is that in each and every year since the mid-1970’s, a substantial number of railroad crossings have been eliminated and many automated gates – the safest type of device at crossings – have been installed. These two factors surely have been responsible for the vast portion of the improvement in railroad-crossing safety, and they didn’t stop in 2004. In fact, they should have more than offset traffic gains. Isn’t it just possible that FRA’s attitude, procedures and practices have had something to do with the reversal in 2004? Isn’t it possible that the so-called FRA-railroad “partnership” was a bad idea for a regulatory agency? Isn’t it possible that the lack of a federally mandated standard for motorist sight obstructions at railroad crossings contributed to the level of accidents? Isn’t it possible that FRA’s lack of investigating railroad-crossing accidents has left the agency in the dark as to the real cause of accidents? Isn’t it possible that FRA relies on faulty data – mostly provided by railroads – to establish its procedures? Isn’t it possible that the New York Times and other critics have gotten at least some things right?

FRA indicates that it will undertake three initiatives that in total constitute its new plan for railroad-crossing safety. These are as follows:

  1. Build partnerships with States and local agencies
    FRA states that it will “build partnerships with States and local agencies,” but doesn’t give specifics. However, it does provide an example. It will help Louisiana construct a Corridor Risk Index and “will work with” the grade-crossing safety community to determine responses to the increased rate of pedestrian fatalities at crossings. Terms such as “build partnerships” and “work with” are not only vague, they lack meaning. Furthermore, they have no association with responsibility and accountability. Surely, the self-professed under-staffed FRA doesn’t intend to be a consultant to all State governments. And shouldn’t FRA already have established working relationships, joint programs, shared-data arrangements, and the like with State agencies. Communication with, and being accessible to, State and local agencies is part and parcel of FRA’s very being.

  2. Disseminate information
    FRA plans to disseminate information as to its capabilities to obtain locomotive event recorder data and to evaluate sound functioning of warning systems? It’s hard to believe that after almost 40 years in the business that FRA has not disseminated such information before. Where are the rules for obtaining event recorders? Who enforces them? Why do railroads not always turn over event recorders following accidents? In general, why should the FRA plan include one of its obvious responsibilities? Again, disseminating information is an expected and normal function of FRA.

  3. Call railroads’ attention to their safety duties
    FRA claims that it has met its third goal of calling railroads’ attention to their safety duties, by publishing in the Federal Registry, a notice that railroads need to review warning circuitry and to train their employees. At best, this is an overstatement of the obvious. At worst, it is an insult to everyone involved in, and affected by, railroad-crossing safety – in other words, to literally everyone. It is FRA’s continual job to enforce safety rules, and calling the railroads’ attention to their own responsibilities should be an assumed daily chore. What’s more important is to clearly define railroad responsibilities in areas of obvious need. For example, since motorists are required by law to yield to trains and stop within a zone of 15-50 feet from a crossing if they hear and/or see an approaching train, it should be the responsibility of railroads to ensure that their warning devices are adequately sounded and that their rights-of-way are clear of overgrown vegetation and other obstacles. And yet, FRA has not proposed a national sight-obstruction law and does not embrace sight-obstruction standards published by its sister agency – the Federal Highway Administration. In fact, FRA is silent on this very serious problem, as it is on accident-reporting accuracy and accident-investigation needs.

As can readily be seen from FRA intentions, its so-called safety plan is nothing new at all. Once again the implicit message from FRA is that the victims of railroad-crossing accidents are at fault for their own collisions, and it has done, and will continue to do, a good job – no matter what evidence exists to the contrary.



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