CTS Publications

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

Virtually forgotten among the issues, analyses and claims relating to railroad grade-crossing safety are the trends associated with private railroad crossings – that is, grade crossings where railroad track intersects with property owned by private entities (farmers, business enterprises, individuals, etc.) as opposed to public road authorities. Private crossings are not the recipients of federal funds for safety upgrades and are overwhelming unprotected as they lack active warning devices. Still, their statistics are often meshed with that of public crossings to draw overall conclusions regarding the safety of grade crossings in this country. In a nutshell, the conclusion reached by a number of “insiders” is that that grade-crossing safety has improved substantially over the past 30 years, largely in part because of motorist education. However, a close examination of private crossings results in the rejection of such “conventional wisdom.” The impact of this realization should resound with those responsible for identifying and rectifying safety needs at our nation’s public railroad crossings.

Shown below in five-year increments, is the annual number of private grade crossings since 1975, the number of casualties (deaths plus injuries) at those crossings, and the number of casualties per crossing. Although intermittent years were not included

Year Number of
Number of
Number of
Per Crossing
1975 142,291 153 .0010
1980 139,717 273 .0019
1985 127,936 224 .0017
1990 116,267 203 .0017
1995 104,759 195 .0018
2000 98,798 196 .0019
2004 (Est.) 94,000 154 .0016

in the above figures for the purpose of brevity, considering data for all years between 1975 and 2004 leads to three statistical observations:

  1. The number of private grade crossings has been steadily declining, with lower numbers in each and every year since 1975. Currently, there are about 34% fewer crossings than in 1975, indicating that without any improvement in safety at private crossings, there should be 34% fewer casualties from accidents at those crossings.
  2. While the number of casualties has clearly declined since 1975, the records in individual years are widely varied, with some years showing increases and other years showing declines.
  3. When the general decline in the number of casualties is appropriately related to the steadily decline in the number of crossings, the resulting statistic of casualties-per-crossing produces no readily observable overall trend. At the same time, there is no indication that the casualty rate has declined.

To identify the trend of casualties-per-crossing since 1975 – given varying measurements over the 29-year span between 1975 and 2004 – a mathematical technique was applied, known as “least squares.” Least squares is a calculation (automatically applied in the Microsoft computer program, “Excel”) for finding the best fit of a trend line by minimizing the sum of the squares of the offsets (residuals) of the points being measured. Applying the least squares technique to the 29 casualties-per-crossing measure between 1975 and 2004 results in a trend line that increases. In essence, since 1975, the number of casualties-per-crossing resulting from accidents at private railroad crossings has increased. This fact flies in the face of the overall decline in casualties from railroad-crossing accidents. Stated differently, the decline in casualties-per-crossing at public crossings masks the increase in casualties-per-crossing at private crossings.

It is important to recognize that casualties-per-crossing have increased at private crossings for two major reasons. First, it indicates that motorist education is not as potent as it is alleged to be. After all, motorists utilize both public and private crossings and they could not be expected to change their driving habits based on this distinction. While motorist education may be desirable, there is simply no evidence as to its relative effectiveness. And second, since gates are rarely employed at private crossings, over 25,000 have been installed at public crossings since 1975, and thus, there is a very strong inference that such installations constitute the overwhelming reason why casualties-per-crossing have declined at public crossings. Surely, these two factors are extremely important in determining how public monies should be spent in providing safety at railroad crossings. Surely, public policy makers should recognize the differences in performance between public and private crossings when making determinations as to the value of crossing gates. And surely, the railroad-crossing environment should add this fact about private crossings to the environment in which crossing issues are discussed, analyzed and hopefully, resolved.


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