FRA: “A Shared Interest in Saving Lives”

Written by James Payne, Federal Railroad Administration
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From November 2013 to October 2017, excluding suicides, 4,242 pedestrians were killed or injured while trespassing on railroad property nationwide. Photo courtesy the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Despite significant improvements over several decades, deaths resulting from highway-rail grade crossing incidents and illegal trespassing continue to account for about 95% of all rail-related fatalities in the U.S. annually. The number of fatalities has plateaued over the last ten years with a combined average of 750 per year excluding suicides. For the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), identifying effective and innovative ways to prevent these fatalities is a top priority, and the agency is seeking to expand and strengthen longstanding partnerships with railroads, states, communities, law enforcement and others to adopt solutions more quickly.

The FRA is seeking to rally allied stakeholders with a shared interest in saving lives. The objective is helping one another leverage and concentrate available resources, expertise and knowledge to deter and prevent train-vehicle and train-pedestrian incidents. Education, engineering and enforcement remain indispensable tools to address the issues. While the 3E’s paradigm has served this cause well, FRA is seeking to build upon it in partnership with railroads, states, law enforcement and organizations like Operation Lifesaver, Inc.

FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory emphasized his fervent commitment to help further reduce grade crossing and trespassing fatalities during his Senate confirmation hearing. He alluded to both personal and professional experiences dealing with such events and his firsthand knowledge of the emotional toll it takes on railroaders. In attempting to tackle the persistent challenge of these avoidable incidents, injuries and deaths, Batory emphasized that increasing grade crossing safety will not only reduce the number of fatalities, but it will also improve the safety and efficiency of the rail transportation network.”

“Almost every grade crossing collision and trespasser death or injury is preventable, and the FRA is working to intensify our abatement efforts,” said Administrator Batory. “Through rigorous data analysis, we have improved our understanding about such behavior and its contributing factors, and are seeking to empower and energize our partners to implement localized deterrence and mitigation strategies that save lives.” 

Stakeholder Engagement and Collaboration

In October 2018, FRA convened a Trespasser & Grade Crossing Fatality Prevention Summit, during which U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Administrator Batory, senior leadership from other U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) modal administrations, States, railroad industry stakeholders, law enforcement and others discussed successful strategies and best practices to reduce the incidence of such events. FRA also resolicited ideas to develop and implement updated comprehensive national plans and strategies.

Subsequently, FRA submitted its first-ever National Strategy to Prevent Trespassing on Railroad Property late last year to the U.S. Congress. It focuses on four strategic focus areas: data gathering and analysis, community site visits, funding, and partnerships with stakeholders. Data in the report for the four-year period from November 2013 to October 2017 shows that, excluding suicides, 4,242 pedestrians were killed or injured while trespassing on railroad property nationwide. Using available data regarding trespass casualties and close-call incidents, FRA also identified the 10 counties in the United States where the most pedestrian trespasser casualties occurred: San Bernardino, Riverside, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Alameda and Los Angeles, Calif.; Cook, Ill.; Harris, Tex.; and Palm Beach and Broward, Fla.

These trespass casualty “hot spots,” provide actionable information that communities may use to develop targeted mitigation strategies that take into consideration specific local circumstances that contribute to the risky and illegal behavior. Over the long term, FRA will evaluate the success of the strategy by determining if trespass casualties decline locally or nationwide.

In March and April 2019, FRA hosted a series of six Grade Crossing Safety Technology Listening Sessions to identify new and emerging technology as well as innovative problem-solving ideas. Sessions were held for Class I and commuter railroad communications and signal experts; railroad signal equipment manufacturers; major information technology companies; automobile manufacturers; rail and transportation industry associations and advocacy groups; law enforcement agencies; federal, state and local government agencies; and experts from other U.S. DOT modal administrations.

FRA asked all participants to share their views of and experience with existing and emerging grade crossing advance warning system technologies, as well as barriers to implementation of new or improved technologies, including whether regulatory changes are needed to allow greater flexibility in deploying them. FRA took note of many actionable ideas for both low- and high-tech improvements at grade crossings, and is exploring suggestions for regulatory change such as use of Federal Highway Administration Section 130 funding to implement new technologies and ensure funding is strategically focused on the highest-risk crossings. Finally, FRA was asked to eliminate or revise signal and train control regulations that impede adoption of new technology as part of an ongoing review of 49 CFR Parts 234 and 236.

Fall Symposium

To follow up on last October’s Summit and the Grade Crossing Technology Listening Sessions earlier this year, FRA will host a Symposium on Highway Rail-Grade Crossing Safety on Nov. 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

The purpose of this gathering is to reconvene with those who attended the prior events and share what was learned. The agenda will include a summary of findings and best practices, a discussion of regulatory matters based on feedback from industry, and a series of rotating breakout sessions where presenters from industry will brief all participants on potential grade crossing technology solutions and best practices that have been successful on a local level to reduce accidents and incidents. FRA also intends to promote the exchange of ideas and information on potential sources of funding to aid states and localities in implementing effective solutions and countermeasures.

Underscoring its commitment to address the challenge posed by illegal trespassing, FRA is also planning to hold six Trespass Prevention meetings during 2020 to engage locally with stakeholders in each of the identified top 10 counties, as well as other targeted meetings with various partners to re-energize preventative efforts and activities.

James Payne is Staff Director of the Federal Railroad Administration Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Program Division.

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