CTS Publications

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

In October of 1995, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) initiated a safety audit of the CSX Transportation Company (CSX), one of the two major railroad systems serving Ohio. (the other being the Norfolk Southern Railroad). Then, as the number of CSX accidents accelerated in the summer of 1997, FRA escalated its ongoing safety oversight of the railroad by launching a full-scale, comprehensive examination of CSX. An ensuing report entitled, Safety Assurance and Compliance Program Report on CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC., is not only revealing in regard to its conclusions, it is also noteworthy as to a major missing link – a link that should have been part and parcel of grade-crossing safety. In this sense, the report is very telling about how both the railroad industry and FRA partner in their attitude regarding motorist sight obstructions at un-protected grade crossings.

Overall, the FRA report is highly critical of CSX safety efforts. It concludes that the railroad had a culture that engendered an adversarial relationship between management and labor, resulting in “instances in which line managers made decisions about train operations which compromised safety, despite the concern of their staff.” The report found that at CSX: (1) “safety first” was not universally observed (2) harassment and intimidation were evident, and (3) poor communications had a negative impact on safety.

Specifically in regard to grade-crossing safety, three areas were identified and reviewed. First, FRA had “concerns about the prevalence of false proceed signal failures, near-collision incidents involving trains and other rolling stock, highway-rail grade crossing accidents, grade crossing signal activation failures, and false activations.” The report identified these deficiencies as largely being the result of inadequate staffing levels that resulted in insufficient time to perform tasks in a proper manner, and contributed to gaps in communications. Two remedies were offered. First, it was recommended that railroad managers reallocate a portion of the signal supervisors’ non-supervisory duties to other staff. And second, it was suggested that CSX review and analyze staffing levels in the quest of identifying and fulfilling needs. Rhetorically speaking, is this not an overstatement of the obvious?

The second area specifically relating to grade-crossing safety was poor visibility of flashing light signals. FRA found a number of instances where signal lights were not aligned to provide clearly visible warnings to approaching motorists. Recommendations to CSX were to: (1) provide instructions for signal maintenance that was in accordance with FRA regulations and industry-wide guidelines (2) form subdivision, signal-inspection teams specializing in grade crossings, and (3) develop a plan/schedule to “repair, upgrade, or replace grade-crossing signals, as needed to comply with current regulations.” While special inspection teams may be a new venture for CSX, following the law and developing plans are no more than expected/required practices.

Finally, there was the matter of sight obstructions. During inspections, FRA found numerous track defects at CSX, including overgrown vegetation. The report concluded that at many locations, vegetation had spread onto the right-of-way and pole lines to such a degree, that it was hitting the sides of rolling stock. Furthermore, such vegetation blocked the view of wayside signs and signals, and adversely affected the functioning of signal and communication lines. Thus, FRA recommended that: “CSX should develop an Action Plan to survey the property to identify all locations affected by excessive vegetation growth, prioritize all locations, and institute a comprehensive, large-scale brush control program. CSX should pursue such a program until the problem is corrected. Subsequent annual maintenance programs should include a sufficient amount of brush control to prevent the present situation from recurring.”

Viewed in total, the three FRA recommendations are nothing more than reminders to CSX to do the right thing – that is, to fulfill its safety responsibilities in accordance with FRA regulations, industry-wide standards, and common sense. Furthermore, a missing link stands out in the area of sight obstructions. The concern of FRA is solely related to overgrown vegetation that inhibits the railroad’s sight lines. And while it can be argued that such a concern is consistent with present federal regulations (Code of Federal Regulations) that address railroad, but not motorist, sight lines, the FRA audit provided an opportunity for that agency to comment on adequate motorist sight lines. After all, while it is dangerous for train engineers and conductors not to be able to adequately see railroad mile posts and signals, it is at least as dangerous for motorists to be hindered in seeing approaching trains at grade crossings. And if CSX was deficient in providing adequate sight lines to itself – as FRA has found – one can only imagine its dereliction in providing adequate sight lines to motorists. In essence, the safety audit of CSX reveals that both FRA and CSX deny responsibility for providing motorists with the ability to adequately see approaching trains at non-protected grade crossings.

Railroads form an integrated system throughout the U.S. with common operating policies, procedures and practices. Thus, it is not sensible to have varying sight-line standards depending on State law. If FRA is really interested in saving lives, it should institute a rule-making procedure to develop national sight-line standards for motorists at grade crossings. If railroads such as CSX are interested in fulfilling their public responsibility, they should implement adequate, motorist sight-line standards on their own. Grade-crossing ownership is shared between private railroads and public road authorities. Both parties have a responsibility to provide protection to motorists using grade crossings. In regard to motorist sight lines, both the railroads and the federal government have failed. The gap in the FRA audit of CSX is a case in point.


©2006 The Angels on Track Foundation. All rights reserved. | Trademark & Copyright Notice | Site Map