Rethinking grade crossing warning devices

Written by Alan Brody
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Four years ago, I lost my wife at a railroad crossing in the New York City suburbs. This catastrophe led to the loss of five other lives, and caused millions in damage. Needless to say, I had a lot of reasons to take a long, hard look at the railroad signage surrounding this incident.

I have a lot of experience in visual symbolism, having researched the topic at both the perceptual and unconscious level for several of my books and published articles.

It turns out the emperor does have clothes, but they are mostly out of date by about a century. Worse than being antiquated, in visual terms, railroad crossing signage speaks a different language than other highway signs.

I am well aware that few in the industry want to change anything. However, once you understand the difference—think of it as American English vs British English—small differences in meaning can have big consequences. But these can be fixed quite inexpensively. The payoff is a huge difference in safety and other long-term benefits. The safer the railway, the more it can do. Here are six ways to make crossings much safer at minimal costs.

Use Bollards to Protect the Crossing

If the no. 1 cause of crossing incidents is impatient drivers going around the gates, the solution is simple: Place bollards (rigid poles) at the median for several car lengths. It would take a very rare driver to drive that far on the wrong side of the street to beat a crossing. Bollards are cheap and can even be ordered online.

The bollards described in this article are what the Federal Railroad Administration refers to as “Traffic Channelization Devices” in a 2012 report, which can be downloaded from the link at the conclusion of this article. The crossing pictured here is on the North Carolina Railroad “Sealed Corridor,” a project implemented by the North Carolina DOT beginning in the late 1990s.

Use Pop-up Barriers Instead of Creaky Gates

At $300,000 to install an electromechanical gate, a hydraulic pop-up would cost a fraction of the price. They can also tilt so stuck cars can easily back over them.

Change the Flashing Lights to an LED Warning Strip

The visual language becomes a real issue when the lights flash. Historically, this goes back to the early days when a wig-wag lamp signaled an oncoming train. Once upon a time, men walked in front of horseless carriages with a flashing light to warn the public of this newfangled device. But their meanings have diverged. At railroad crossings, flashing red lights represent rapidly approaching danger. On the highway, however, flashing red lights represent a lower-level hazard than a steady red light. Drivers tend to interpret them as a yield or a sign that the regular traffic lights aren’t working properly. That means some percentage of drivers will ignore the context and instinctively respond to these lights as they would on the highway. There are so many better, cheaper solutions today, from LED police-style lights to disco style strobes and fades, all of which would remove any hint of confusion.

Put English in the “Lollipop” Warning Sign

The main reason railroad signs are different is because they were not designed for motorists, mainly because there weren’t any at the time. They were designed for ranchers, since the greatest fear of a 19th Century rail baron was plowing into a herd of cattle. So the less of train enthusiast you are, the less likely you are to recognize the Circle X warning because it used the vocabulary of rural America: a branding iron intended to warn ranchers. A simple rectangular sign placed below stating Warning: Railroad Crossing could make all the difference to a generation that has never seen, let alone owned, a model train set.

Give the Crossbuck a Background—and Stop Talking in Angles and Tracks

Unlike the average rail enthusiast, the average driver cannot read at a 45-degree angle, even if the words do say “Rail Crossing.” Often, the crossbuck, being white, gets lost behind white clouds. So, put a background board and add the warning at eye level, the way humans actually read—especially when driving. As the for the number of tracks at the crossing, it is highly unlikely that the average driver has a clue what is being communicated, so add “Wide Crossing” or “Extra Wide” crossing and maybe they’ll understand.

Lower the Crossbuck and Light It

Since the crossbuck was intended to speak to ranchers, it had to be high enough that it could be seem by a man on a horse—around 13 feet. The typical roadside warning sign is set at around 7 feet. So not only is the crossbuck too high relative to other signs to be quickly recognized, it is also too high for its reflector material to pick up motor-vehicle headlights from closer than about 50 to 75 feet. That means, on a straight road, the sign will actually turn dark as you get closer. On a sharp turn less than 75 feet away, you may not see the sign at all. A fix would be to add a second crossbuck at headlight level, and if possible, illuminate the entire crossing. Strobe lights or powerful LEDs would be highly recommended.

While there are a lot of high-tech solutions that could be layered on top of these ideas, what I’ve described here is inexpensive and generally foolproof. The larger issue is not just saving lives, but that the safer railways are, they more they can be put to use.

Editor’s Note: On the evening of Feb. 3, 2015, in one of the worst highway/rail crossing accidents in recent years, a Metro-North EMU commuter train operating in third-rail-electrified territory struck a vehicle at a crossing in Valhalla, N.Y. The accident took the life of the vehicle’s driver, Ellen Brody—the author’s wife—and those of five passengers in the first railcar. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the accident, which can be researched at this Wikipedia entry, said that Ellen Brody “was unaware of the proximity of the approaching train.” This is mainly what prompted Alan Brody, whose first job as a teenager was as a railroad conductor in his native South Africa, to conduct his research and offer his views. It is our hope that some benefit will arise from publishing this article—at the very least, to raise public awareness of grade crossing safety, on top of what the Federal Railroad Administration and organizations like Operation Lifesaver have been doing for a long time. — William C. Vantuono

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