212,000 grade crossings in the U.S. Can we close more of them?

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, February 26, 2015

A westbound Union Pacific autorack train heads west through a grade crossing at California Junction, Iowa. The U.S. has more than 212,000 grade crossings. Jim Wrinn photo.
After Tuesday’s Metrolink grade crossing collision that injured 28, four critically, and the Feb. 3 Metro-North collision that killed six and caused $3.7 million in damage, I think it’s time for a serious discussion about aggressively closing more grade crossings in the United States.

This isn’t a complex equation. More trains are hauling more commuters, passengers, and freight than at any other time in modern history. I used to wait for hours in a small town in the Carolinas to see two, maybe three trains pass in an afternoon. Now, everywhere I go, it’s rush hour 24/7 with trains every 15-20 minutes, sometimes more. More trains = more passages over crossings.

On the other hand, the public is less mindful of the railroad industry and the potential hazards that go with it. We’ve gone two generations now in the post-railroad culture of America. Motorists are more distracted than ever with ear buds, text messages, and even the GPS that is supposed to help them get around. In the California accident, a trucker accidentally turned onto the tracks, possibly thinking he was turning onto another road. In the New York incident, a driver apparently panicked when the gates went down.

Even the most focused of us make bad choices behind the wheel. In Milwaukee, where I live, I’ve seen Interstate 94 drivers set to go northbound on an exit ramp veer across four lanes to get on the southbound exit ramp at the last second. Not long ago, a trucker, following his GPS, turned onto a park path and wound up damaging a historic pedestrian bridge overlooking Lake Michigan when his 18-wheeler got stuck. Need I go on?

The best solution is to take away the intersection of trains and motor vehicles. Shut them down. Put in a bridge over the tracks or an underpass. But just get rid of them. It is expensive — bridges come in at about $10 million each and underpasses about $20 million each with the money coming from federal, state, and local government sources. But it is worth it, and there’s even an economic twist that’s worth considering: Grade crossing accidents on busy routes like CSX’s National Gateway or Norfolk Southern’s Crescent corridor have implications across a wide network.

Not every crossing needs this treatment. There are plenty of lonely ones out there where train frequency may be high but the number of motorists is not. The latest count that I can find shows more than 212,000 level crossings in the U.S. Illinois, alone, has more than 8,400. There are plenty in urban and suburban areas that need extra lights, gates, or other safety devices, but the busiest ones in terms of trains and vehicles need a fresh look to see if more is in order.

Metrolink is a fine example. The 512-mile commuter railroad for Los Angeles has 451 grade crossings, including 300 that it maintains, 78 that BNSF Railway maintains, 70 that Union Pacific maintains, and three that are under supervision of a transit district. It operates in five counties and carries about 42,000 people each day. The site of Tuesday’s crash, at Rice Avenue and East Fifth Street in Oxnard, Calif., is about 1.3 miles away from crossings on either side of it, and they’re just side streets. At least a couple of the crossings could go away.

In my home state of North Carolina, the state transportation rail division is doubletracking the busy corridor between Charlotte and Greensboro. The project includes 13 new grade separations and closure of 25 crossings, some of which have been targeted since the 1990s when the state got serious about its passenger rail program. Since 1992, North Carolina closed 208 public crossings and 44 private crossings. In the busy Charlotte-Raleigh corridor, it closed 58 public crossings and 20 private ones.

Says Paul Worley, rail director for NCDOT: “For years, I traveled around the state and saw bridges that were built in the 1930s and 1940s when there was an effort to upgrade roads and eliminate some of the most deadly crossings on the developing state highway system. I always hoped for a program like that again, and now we’re doing it. That’s pretty exciting and it will help modernize our highway and rail systems and that will result in better mobility and economic opportunity….”

Operation Lifesaver, the grade crossing safety education program, has done wonders to cut the number of grade crossings accidents. Collisions have dropped from more than 7,300 in 1983 to more than 2,000 in 2013. That is a huge improvement, but still, about 200 people die each year in those collisions. After the Metro-North accident, two U.S. senators proposed increasing funding for new lights and signals and educational materials. That’s good, but I don’t think education would have done much to help in either the New York or the California accident.

Worley reminds me that Gil Carmichael, who was Federal Railroad Administrator 25 years ago, set a goal of eliminating 25 percent of grade crossings in the U.S. Carmichael was on to something, then, and it’s not too late to build bridges of safety and commerce today.

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