DOT’s Chao calls on railroad industry to improve grade crossing safety

Written by Stuart Chirls, Senior Editor
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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao addresses the Trespasser & Grade Crossing Fatality Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C., Oct. 30, 2018. Railway Age photo by Stuart Chirls

WASHINGTON – The Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration are sounding an urgent warning about grade crossing safety, and asking the industry to collaborate on improvements.

DOT and its agencies on Oct. 30 co-sponsored the first Trespasser & Grade Crossing Fatality Prevention Summit, an event that by design brought together regulators, operators, advocacy groups, Operation Lifesaver, railroad management, labor and suppliers to kick off the process of formulating solutions to an increasingly serious problem.

“Since 1989 crossing fatalities are now one-third of what they were, thanks to our collaborative efforts,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told the several hundred attendees, “but more needs to be done. Statistics show progress has leveled off in the last five years. There has to be a new strategy to improve safety around grade crossings, and success is going to require infrastructure improvements, expert analysis, new technology and communication skills to get the word out, and that is difficult.

“Every day, new drivers are getting behind the wheel and every day, they and pedestrians are gambling with their lives that they have enough time to cross before the train comes. Progress can be made, and we can all do it together.”

Federal Railroad Administrator and longtime railroad executive Ronald Batory in introductory remarks recalled a number of terrifying incidents from his years “in the cab,” including seeing “a yellow blur” fly over the locomotive after his train smashed into a just-emptied schoolbus stalled on the tracks.

“Weekly there are 20-30 grade crossing incidents nationwide, and 10-15 deaths each week,” Batory told the attendees. “That’s 1,500 deaths a year, and they are all preventable.

“Trespassing continues to grow, with 500-600 deaths a year. Engineering, education and enforcement continue to be critical, technology, too. But we can’t continue to work in a vacuum. We need collaboration to figure out how to save lives. We have an obligation to ourselves to look out for our fellow persons, and to do that we need to unleash technology without overregulation.”

Chao wants the industry to harness safety training, education, enforcement, effective messaging and especially technology in the safety effort. Autonomous vehicles (AV), she noted, and whether they can detect live crossings, are another concern. Railway Age was shown a concept video created by a working group allied with DOT depicting an autonomous vehicle approaching a crossing with flashers activated, which were repeated on the vehicle dashboard – a safety update on time-tested cab signaling.

But, the event underscored how technology and human behavior increasingly are contributing to grade crossing danger, whether by drivers and pedestrians distracted by cellphones and headphones, or a hurried pace of life where people are more than willing to race a train to a crossing.

Speakers at the event pointed to “hard” safety solutions such as upgraded security, quadrant gates, fencing, barriers and high-decibel warning horns. Some communities are deploying cameras to record motor vehicle grade crossing violations, with a warning mailed to drivers.

Research, attendees were told, that found teenagers will sleep through smoke alarms and alarm clocks, but are likely to wake to their mother’s voice, has led manufacturers to offer programmable ‘smart’ alarms – safety developments that may find their way to grade crossings protection.

Chao emphasized that DOT and its agencies provide millions in funding for infrastructure and safety-related improvements – including a $132-million grant, the largest ever – for the CREATE program in Chicago, which among other things will eliminate a number of grade crossings. “That will also help improve passenger and freight rail service in the Chicago region,” Chao said.

Other “soft” strategies were discussed, such as coordinated public awareness campaigns involving local law enforcement, businesses and schools, and efforts to better understand drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health issues, which can lead to depression and trespasser suicide.

Chicago’s Metra commuter system has had success training rail employees to recognize potential self-harming behavior by trespassers, and intervene.

“Since 2016 we have had 106 successful interventions thanks to training of engineers, conductors, station agents , and police to look for tell-tale signs of potential suicide,” said Metra Chairman Norman Carlson. “A signal maintainer talked a woman off a bridge ledge. We think it’s working and may be sustainable.

“Metra is in the business of saving lives.”

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