CTS Publications


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

On July 21, 2005, Edward R. Hamberger, President of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Railroads. The AAR is the trade association of the major railroads in North America and its members include all Class I railroads in the United States (the seven largest railroad systems), the two dominant railroads in Canada, and many smaller (Regional and Local) railroads throughout the country. The subject was grade-crossing safety. In essence, Mr. Hamberger was representing the railroad industry in espousing views on railroad grade-crossing safety. Unfortunately, the industry not only reaffirmed its belief in old myths, it seems to have created at least one new one. The railroads’ positions, followed by rebuttals, are presented below.


The railroads’ (Mr. Hamberger) testimony stated that: “The unfortunate and frustrating reality, though, is that notwithstanding rail efforts to reduce the number of crossing accidents, the vast majority of such accidents are caused by inappropriate motorist behavior. According to a June 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, risky driver behavior or poor judgment accounted for 31,035 or 94 percent of public grade crossing accidents from 1994-2003.” The railroad industry seems to have canonized this report, even in the fact of conflicting evidence. Additionally, there are several passages within Mr. Hamberger’s testimony that infer that motorists are to blame for virtually all but a rare few, grade-crossing accidents.

The Inspector General’s office has admitted that it based its statistics on railroad accident reports – hardly the paragon of objectivity and accuracy. In fact, in the same July 21 hearing, the Inspector General testified that grade-crossing accident reporting is far from reliable and that new methods should be developed and implemented to rectify this deficiency. There is currently no reliable source from which to quote relative accident causes, and the railroad industry’s insistence that victims are almost always to blame for their tragedies is at best self serving.


Railroads continue to take the position that automated crossing gates are not very valuable. The July 21 testimony reads that: “Motorist error is a major problem even at crossings equipped with active warning devices. It may surprise you to know that since 1980, approximately 50 percent of all highway-rail crossing incidents involving motor vehicles, and some 48 percent of fatalities, occurred at crossings equipped with active warning devices. Motorists too often drive around lowered gates, ignore flashing lights and ringing bells, and proceed through red traffic lights, often with tragic results . . . In addition to disregard for warning devices, common motorist errors include misjudgments of speed and stopping abilities, misunderstanding of warning signs and signals, and failure to avoid collisions due to distraction and inattention.”

What is not said by the railroad industry is that gates are most often installed at the crossings handling the most railroad and motor vehicle traffic, and on a unit-of-traffic basis, the Federal Railroad Administration has found such gates to be by far, the most effective safety device at grade crossings. Numerous research studies have affirmed this conclusion. Furthermore, while grade crossing casualties-per-crossing have been declining over the past 30 years at public crossings (that have received significantly more gates), the casualty rate has climbed at private crossings where gates are rarely installed. And finally, the railroad industry is silent on the number of gate failures and its own role is ensuring that gates are properly working and in a “fail-safe” mode. Rhetorically speaking, if gates were not safer than passive devices, hundreds of millions of dollars would not be provided by taxpayers for their installation?


The railroad industry inappropriate combined accidents from grade crossings and trespassing in claiming that, “these incidents usually arise from factors that are largely outside of railroad control.” This message is a continuation of the position that highway agencies – and not railroads -- are responsibility for identifying and rectifying safety needs at grade crossings. Mr. Hamberger then goes on to state that while grade-crossing improvements do not benefit railroads, . . . “railroads currently spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars per year on grade crossings.”

Contrary to the industry’s position, railroads are not precluded from doing all they can to help improve safety at their crossings. After all, they are half owners of the crossings (owning the track structure and right-of-way), have been given an exclusion license by the public to operate through public and private land, and have a responsibility to help to provide safety to those having to cross their track. Furthermore, the federal and State programs to aide crossing safety do not excuse railroads from their own responsibilities for public safety. For example, railroads can clear their rights-of-way from sight obstructions, in accordance with national standards developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). They can train their locomotive engineers and conductors to identify, and report, hazardous conditions at crossings. And, they can treat the accident environment as a crime scene in order to preserve evidence.

It is also noteworthy that the quarter of a billion dollars referred to by Mr. Hamberger, has never been specifically identified (broken down) by the railroad industry. Since railroads do not fund the installation of crossing gates; since they have to maintain their track structures, with or without crossings; since they are subsidized by some States for maintaining active crossing devices; and, since they may make money by being sole source contractors to install gates, there are many unanswered questions as to where and how railroads spend money relating to grade-crossing safety.


A new position seemingly being taken – or at least inferred – by the railroad industry is that it is adequately addressing the problem of motorist sight obstructions at grade crossings. In his July 21 testimony, Mr. Hamberger stated that: “CSX also has a $30 million program to clear cut vegetation along railroad tracks to enhance the public’s visibility at grade crossings with no active warning devices, While Union Pacific (UP) has entered into long-term, performance-based vegetation contracts to improve sight distance.”

There are three problems with the above position. First, there is no mention of a sight-obstruction standard. Railroads are required by federal law to clear their rights-of-way so that their operations are not hindered. Have they now gone past this requirement and are complying with the AASHTO standard? Based on railroad positions in judicial proceedings, the answer is undoubtedly a firm “no.” Second, the railroads’ efforts are limited to vegetation. There is no identification of other obstructions such as piles of stored materials, railroad structures, and parked trains. And third, there is no mention of a unified, railroad-industry-wide program based on needed, motorist sight-distance lines. A few numbers are thrown out for two railroads, but nothing else is revealed about a larger context. The railroad industry’s sight-distance position gives the appearance of a new myth in the early stages of marketing.

While the overall purpose of the railroad industry’s testimony on July 21 was to acquire and/or secure federal funds for grade-crossing safety – including more monies for Operation Lifesaver – it has unintended (or maybe, intended) consequences. It continues to perpetuate old myths and seems to have created a new one. Such positions invite responsible responses and hopefully, this paper serves that purpose.


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