CTS Publications

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

A lot of numbers are tossed around regarding grade crossings, protective and/or informational devices at crossings, collisions between trains and motor vehicles, and the size of the railroad industry. No matter what the descriptive numbers, they are relatively grandiose and somewhat intimidating. But in regard to seeking improvements in grade-crossing safety – particularly the responsibility of funding upgraded devices at crossings – there is a sensible way to narrow the relevant playing field.

The overwhelming majority of grade-crossing collisions occur at public crossings where federal/State programs and monies are focused. This does not mean that private crossings are not a concern; rather, at this time, public crossings are the tip of the iceberg. There are about 150,000 public crossings in this country out of a total of 248,000 crossings. In 2003, there were 324 fatalities caused by collisions at grade crossings. As shown below, 284 of those deaths, or 88% of the total, involved Class I Railroads – the largest railroad systems in this country as measured by annual revenue (almost $300 million) – along with Amtrak, the country’s national passenger service. Of the remaining 40 fatalities (324 less 284), 20 are attributed to commuter railroads. A number of these high-speed urban systems utilize


Union Pacific
Burlington Northern/Santa Fe
CSX Transportation
Norfolk Southern
Kansas City Southern
Illinois Central

Total Class I

Number of


the same rights-of-way as the Class I railroads, and if combined with their freight-carrying brethren, the total death rate increases to 304 (284 plus 20), and to 93% of the total. This leaves 20 fatalities, of which 10 are attributed to the smaller non-Class I railroads and 10 are in an “other” category (stated by the Federal Railroad Administration in its annual safety report). In essence, 95% or more of the fatalities from grade-crossing collisions in 2003 involved a Class I railroad or a passenger-carrying railroad – the latter which often use and/or parallel the rights-of-way of Class I railroads. In that there are only seven Class I railroad systems in the United States (plus segments of two large Canadian railroads), one national railroad system, and a handful of sizeable commuter lines, a logical concentration on railroad-involvement in grade-crossing safety whittles down to no more than 15 railroads.

The list of 15 railroads can be pared even further when one considers that Amtrak has almost no unprotected crossings within its high-speed corridors, thereby resulting in collisions almost exclusively on the lines of Class I railroads. Furthermore, the commuter lines are public entities whose source of financing is a matter of local preference. And finally, four “mega” railroads dominate the Class I industry, and in fact, the entire railroad industry. As shown below, these four railroads have significant financial resources to aid in the improvement of grade-crossing safety. While figures are

Year 2003


Net Worth

Union Pacific
Bur. No. Santa Fe.
Norfolk Southern

not yet available for 2004, this latest year was a record one for the railroad industry and thus, the above levels are expected to increase. The point is, four dominant railroads in this country account for a predominance of grade-crossing collisions, and these are the railroads in the best financial position to help improve safety at grade crossings.

Tax payers provide hundreds of millions of dollars annually for grade-crossing safety. While one can argue that public monies could best be spent by concentrating on Class I railroads in general, and the top four railroads in particular, it can also be logically concluded that these railroads should match the public investment. After all, they own half of the crossing structure, have been given an exclusive public license to operate, and are vested with a public nature and responsibility. Furthermore, these mega railroads can well afford to make such contributions. The broad perspective on railroad safety could be reduced to a focus on the responsibilities of mega railroads. They own much of the track; operate high-speed freight trains; provide passage for high-speed Amtrak trains; and, experience an overwhelming portion of grade-crossing fatalities. These railroads claim that they are heavily committed to motorist education, while at the same time, espousing that grade-crossing safety needs are a highway responsibility. They cannot – or at least, should not -- have it both ways. It is past time for Class I railroads to not only step to the plate. It is time for them to hit one out of the ball park. That’s my perspective on the perspective of grade-crossing safety in this country.



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