Safety Devices

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Not surprisingly, since they are an endeavor conducted by human beings, railroads cannot yet be considered as “perfectly safe” operations.  An old industry saw is that a railroad’s book of rules is “written in blood”, and unfortunately, it continues to be a work in progress in many instances.

Frustratingly, this isn’t for lack of trying, training, investing and disciplining.  A look at a place that has become familiar to me provides significant evidence of the ongoing intent of railroads to achieve “zero defects” in the realm of safety.  At the grade crossing of Old Chapel Avenue and the Norfolk Southern’s H-line in Boyce, Virginia, there are four different safety devices in view in the photograph above, on October 29, 2023.

From left to right, NS freight train 274 is in the process of passing: an automatic block signal; a PTC (positive train control) mast; a standard grade crossing warning system including a gate, flashing lights and the sound of a bell; and finally, a device seen more often in the past than in recent times that is trying to prevent unwary motorists from making a blind left turn from Virginia Avenue onto Old Chapel Avenue that probably would be catastrophic for the vehicle and its occupants. (For that matter, a mile north/east of this location on the railroad is another safety apparatus, in the form of an equipment defect detector at milepost H-45.)

The most interesting of these is the last.  While it might seem obvious from the viewpoint shown here that a left turn should not be attempted, if the train were coming from the opposite direction, a motorist, especially one with the windows up and their sound/entertainment system on, might be blissfully unaware of the oncoming train.

While the crossing gate on this side of the track is down, it is the typical “one lane” variety (as opposed to “four-quadrant” gates, which block both lanes on both sides).  Thus, it would be possible to make a left turn onto the track by going around the gate, perhaps if the driver was attempting to “beat the train” to the crossing, although this maneuver would be complicated by the need to go around the crossing gate on the other side of the road. 

Definitely not a good idea, in any case, and thus the added warning, both prohibiting the left turn, as well as the red stop light.   Foolproof?  Probably not, but there is a significant good-faith effort to prevent train-vehicle collisions in operation here.

Something else that needs to be noted is that all these safety devices are owned and operated by the railroad, at its expense, of course.  While two of the four railroad devices/systems seen here, the block signal and the PTC mast, primarily address the safe and efficient operation of the railroad, half of the total is devoted to the safety of motorists and pedestrians crossing the tracks.  This is an effort significantly beyond the display of a “use at your own risk” sign, for example.

Finally, there is another, passive warning device provided by the proprietors of the road system, i.e. state/local government, although its message isn’t visible here, since it is on the other side of the metal sign on the yellow post on the far right. This is the familiar depiction of a long truck (motor vehicle) “bottoming out” on what can be described as a “humpback” grade crossing.  Needless to say, routine maintenance for this object is essentially nil, and its installation simply involved putting a post in the ground and then attaching the sign to the post.

Rail/vehicle accidents continue to happen; not every grade crossing has this much protection, for that matter.  However, it generally goes unnoticed how much effort, and expense, the rail industry has put forth to try and prevent them, even though the evidence of this is literally right in front of our eyes.

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