CTS Publications

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

Bucking a long-term national trend, deaths from collisions at railroad crossings increased from 324 in 2003 to 369 in 2004, representing a gain of 14 percent. At the same time, deaths from railroad-crossing collisions in Ohio increased from 13 to 14 – a smaller gain, but still an increase, and thus, also a cause of attention. In fact, there were 11 more railroad-crossing accidents in Ohio in 2004, compared with 2003. These increases raise a poignant question: Is this a one-year anomaly or is something else going on? While it is too early to draw a definitive conclusion, there is evidence to support an educated speculation and that’s exactly what I do herein.

The arguments in support of 2004 being an anomaly are twofold. First, there is a statistical basis for the deviation. This is because trends do not have to be consistent at every point of measurement – in this case, each year – and that as numbers get smaller, there is a higher probability of a short-term variance. In essence, the fewer the number of observations (in this case, railroad-crossing collisions), the lower the probability of consistent results, or statistical validity. Second, it could be argued that there is no apparent reason for the increase in deaths in 2004, other than the law of chance. This position is premised on the alleged lack of rationale cause. After all, in 2004 the safety administrators continued with their programs to install crossing gates, close redundant crossings, improve informational devices, and provide motorist education. Under this scenario, it could be expected that over the next 10 years or so, the death rate would decline overall, but that there would be individual years where the rate would increase.

On the other side of the ledger, there is reason to believe that all is not well in the safety delivery system, and that in the case of railroad-crossing safety the ripest fruit has been plucked from the tree. Thus, 2004 would signify that future improvements will be much harder to achieve – that is, unless there are changes in the safety administrative system. To understand this explanation, one has to understand that when federal legislation was enacted in the early 1970s to address railroad-crossing safety, the railroad industry was in a deplorable and chaotic state. Over 20 percent of railroad mileage in this country was in bankruptcy as the industry was characterized with over-capacity (including far too much track), extremely poor labor conditions, inadequate earnings, under-capitalization, significant track deficiencies, and substantial deferred maintenance. Furthermore, there were many redundant railroad crossings and very few that were equipped with automated gates and flashing lights. Thus, when the federal/state programs were initiated in the early 1970s, there was virtually only one way to go. But with limited funding, the upward climb was not about to happen overnight.

Over the next 30-plus years, billions of dollars of tax-payer money was expended on installing tens of thousands of automated gates and lights and closing many unnecessary crossings. At the same time, the railroad industry consolidated, dilapidated railroads were eliminated or replaced, and deferred maintenance was greatly reduced. These, and other less substantial factors, caused a steady downward trend in railroad-crossing collisions, in spite of some gaping holes in the safety, administrative process. Such deficiencies included: (1) the railroad industry taking the position that it is not responsible for either identifying railroad-crossing needs, or rectifying deficiencies in the crossing environment (2) the Federal Railroad Administration not investigating crossing accidents, allowing railroads to negotiate their financial penalties for safety violations to inconsequential levels, was being directed by seemingly unqualified personnel having close relationships to railroads (3) the lack of uniform, national sight-distance standards (4) the failure of railroads to report all crossing accidents and to withhold accident information from authorities (5) the promotion by insiders, of the thesis that victims are responsible for virtually all railroad-crossing collisions. But still, the death rate went down and the involved parties crowded the band wagon, taking credit for the overall success. Some of the insiders made unsupportable claims about their impact on the declining collision and death rates. So far, none of them have stepped forward to identify their shortcomings as being responsible for the increased death rate in 2004.

I suspect, that as with many things, there is a melding of two general factors that has adversely affected the death rate in 2004. At the outset, I recognize that the statistical phenomena of relative changes in lower numbers may hold true to some degree, but I don’t think it is a major player in affecting the 2004 figures. Rather, I believe that with the cream gradually, but steadily, skimmed off the top of what was an extremely deplorable state of railroad safety in the early 1970s, the combination of a self-serving mantra and related deficiencies in the safety net, has always adversely affected railroad-crossing safety, but now with the lower figures, the problems have been exposed. While I have identified safety deficiencies in previous writings, new evidence has surfaced over the past several months, including admissions from the insiders themselves. This evidence includes the following:

  1. A serious of investigative reports by the New York Times identified a host of system ineffectiveness and inefficiencies. In many cases, the deficiencies were indefensible and the targeted parties vowed to change for the better.
  2. The Inspector General’s Office of the United States Department of Transportation undertook an investigation into the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of the Federal Railroad Administration, and in a preliminary report, found that the relationship between the Administration and the railroad industry was too close.
  3. The Federal Railroad Administrator was pressured into resigning and the Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation acknowledged the problems of past Administration practices.
  4. In spite of claims by Operation Lifesaver that a report by the Federal Highway Administration stated that it was responsible for saving 11,000 lives, the Administration denied that such a report existed, and Operation Lifesaver admitted that it was being over-zealous in its claims.
  5. Some railroads have acknowledged the need for more aggressive programs to eliminate motorist sight obstructions.
  6. The Attorney General of New York reached a settlement with a major railroad that admitted to comprehensive safety deficiencies that in prior years it had denied.
  7. Politicians and newspaper editorials have been more vocal about railroad-safety issues and problems, and
  8. There is proposed federal regulation to investigate more railroad-crossing collisions, allocate substantially more money for crossing safety, and to tighten federal regulatory standards affecting safety at public railroad crossings.

This is not to say that major problems still won't exist in regard to providing adequate safety at railroad crossings. But if good can come from bad – and surely, the increase in deaths in 2004 was not something that any rational person would want – then maybe, just maybe, the insiders will examine their responsibilities and practices, and work to improve the situation. If so, 2004 will have served as an ominous sign – a wakeup call – that turned a negative into something positive.



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