CTS Publications

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

Contrasting the "wish list" of the two major insiders in the arena of grade-crossing safety – the railroad industry and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) – with the needs of the public (motorists/outsiders), reveals much about deficiencies of the symbiotic relationship within the system that is responsible for providing safety at our nation’s 248,000 grade crossings. As discussed below, there appears to be an explanation for this undesirable gap between insider wants and outsider needs.

In a nutshell, the railroad industry seeks to supplant its own responsibility and financial commitment to grade-crossing safety, with that of federal and State governments, by trying to designate grade-crossing safety as almost purely a highway issue. As a spokesman for the railroad industry has stated, It’s the state highway people who decided to put highways . . . over the railroad tracks. They’re the highway safety experts. We didn’t put the highways in and frankly, we would prefer that they not be there. In view of this attitude, it is not surprising that the railroad industry advocates the following, as provided on the web-site of the Association of American Railroads, www.aar.org:

  1. Specify that the government is responsible for the determination of grade crossing safety needs and the selection of crossing warning devices.
  2. Use public funds to improve safety at private grade crossings.
  3. Freeze the overall number of grade crossings within each state.
  4. Fund a national education program which focuses on motorist responsibilities at grade crossings.
  5. Prohibit the disclosure of certain grade-crossing safety documents and data used in the implementation of the major publicly funded safety program.

These railroad "wants" are espoused in an environment where railroads have long been acknowledged to have a public nature and responsibility; where railroads are at least half owners of all (public and private) grade crossings; where the government (federal, State and local) already spends hundreds of millions annually on grade-crossing safety; where it is documented that railroads have under-reported grade-crossing accidents and have destroyed evidence vital to ensuing litigation; and where courts have found railroads to be at fault for a number of grade-crossing accidents. Talk about chutzpa (unmitigated gall), if the word didn’t already exist, it could be created for the railroad industry.

FRA’s list of wants is presented in the Secretary of Transportation’s Action Plan, to "improve safety at both public and private grade crossings." (Requested by House Report 108-10 and Senate Report 107-224. These future goals are to:

  1. Determine what constitutes a "public purpose" at private crossings.
  2. Advance engineering standards and new technology.
  3. Expand motorist and pedestrian education.
  4. Energize enforcement of motorist and pedestrian traffic laws.
  5. Close unneeded crossings.
  6. Improve data analysis and research.
  7. Complete development of emergency notification systems.
  8. Complete implementation of such safety standards as whistle-ban legislation and railroad equipment reflectorization.
  9. Evaluate current safety efforts for effectiveness.

Number 1 above is consistent with the railroads' desire for public funding of private crossings. Numbers 2-8 simply indicate that FRA will try to improve upon its performance in various areas in which it has established programs. This is akin to issuing a proclamation to "do better." And number 9 is an over-statement of the obvious – that is, something that is a normal part of effective management. Overall, the DOT (FRA) Action Plan has been perceived, developed and adopted within a narrow box of inside thinking. There is little, if anything, that is new. And what is missing speaks volumes. The plan fails to address the leading factor causing many unprotected (non-gated) grade crossings to be characterized as "ultra-hazardous" – that factor being, motorist sight obstructions. The plan is silent on railroad responsibilities for grade-crossing safety. And it endorses the broadening of motorist/pedestrian safety education without providing for a balanced educational process. With the exception of establishing a premise for providing public funds for safety at private crossings, the DOT plan offers nothing new. Moreover, it panders to the railroad industry – the other insider – rather than trying to meet the needs of the “outsiders” (public) who must cross railroad track.

Public needs in regard to grade-crossing safety are patently obvious to students of the subject who do not have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The public needs an advocate and/or an ombudsman. Such representative would surely address matters of protection. For example, it is undeniable that motorists have a need to know when trains are approaching. Ergo, they must be able to adequately see and hear oncoming trains in time for them to avoid being hit. Such needs require that no sight obstructions (overgrown vegetation, structures, stored material, etc.) are present. Since there are national standards for adequate motorist sight distances, it makes eminent sense that DOT’s Action Plan should have recommended that such standards be adopted into national legislation. Its’ been 20 years since DOT itself identified the need for adequate sight distances at railroad crossings. Second, motorists and pedestrians would be well served if railroads fulfilled their responsibilities for grade-crossing safety. After all, railroads are part owners of all crossings and their on-train engineers and conductors pass through these crossings on a daily basis. Railroads can, and should, help to identify ultra-hazardous conditions at their crossings; they should maintain their crossings in a safe manner, and; they should provide matching (to the public investment) funds to upgrade safety devices. The $200 million, or so, annual expenditure by the federal and State governments can readily be matched by the profitable railroad industry that has been granted an exclusive license by the public to operate throughout the country. And third, DOT/FRA should ensure that railroad-crossing safety education is offered through a balanced approach. If motorists are to be ticketed for irresponsible driving at crossings, then the owners of the crossings should be levied with stiff fines when their crossings are found to be ultra-hazardous. If motorists are to be taught that they cause dangerous conditions at crossings, they must also be taught that certain conditions may exist that make crossings ultra-hazardous and thus require extra caution. If DOT/FRA is to fund public education of grade-crossing safety, as it does, it should do so in respect of standards. Always blaming motorists for railroad-crossing accidents gives self-anointed good drivers a false sense of security that can be highly dangerous.

The point is that once again, railroads and FRA have been shown to be on a single page, and that page excludes some major, basic needs of the public. Such common thinking lends itself to accusations that the regulator and regulated are too close. Based on my many years of experience in the world of railroading, I believe that such accusations are both well founded and detrimental. One might expect the railroad industry to be self-serving, but FRA is another matter. Why are these two insiders seemingly "joined at the hip?" To me, the answer is clear. Ignoring the key issues of adequate sight distances, railroad responsibility, and a balanced education, allows the insiders to avoid accountability for their actions. When grade-crossing accidents are thought to be the exclusive fault of the accident victims, railroads and FRA can do little wrong. Under such an assumption (faulty as it is), a decline in the accident rate would mean that railroads and FRA are doing a good job. An increase in the accident rate would mean that motorists must be more responsible. In my mind, it is past time for railroads and FRA to disengage, think outside of their historic relationship, and give adequate consideration to the very public that relies upon them for protection.



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