A highway-railroad grade crossing is an intersection where a roadway crosses railroad tracks at the same level (referred to by civil engineers as the same “grade”). America’s landscape is currently dotted with more than 250,000 public and private highway-rail grade crossings. In recent years, roughly 300-400 deaths have occurred annually at the Nation’s grade crossings, thus warranting significant attention from transportation agencies. Because a grade crossing is a point at which more than one mode of transportation meets, several entities, both public and private, have jurisdiction over various aspects of the intersections.
Railroad companies own and maintain the tracks, and generally own the property (rights-of-way) to either side of the tracks. At grade crossings, they generally install and maintain the tracks, the roadway surface between and around the rails, and traffic control devices on their rights-of-way.
While the railroad owns the track, the roadway at a crossing is owned by either a public or private entity. Public crossings are those at which the highway or roadway is under the jurisdiction of and maintained by a public authority such as a municipality, county, or State agency. Private crossings are those in which the roadway is privately owned, as you might find on a farm or within an industrial complex, where the road is not intended for public use and is not maintained by a public authority. This roadway owner, public or private, typically maintains the road approaching the crossing on either side of tracks.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is responsible for public grade crossing issues that affect highway safety. FHWA provides guidelines and standards for the correct design of grade crossings, the assessment of safety at a grade crossing, and appropriate placement of traffic control devices at and on the approach to a grade crossing. These traffic control devices include circular advance warning signs, crossbucks (the familiar x-shaped signs), pavement markings, and, in some locations, bells, gates, and flashing lights as described in the FHWA’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).
States determine which public crossings are in need of improvements, and determine what those improvements will be. In order to make these improvements, states rely heavily on federally supplied funds authorized in Title 23 United States Code (23 U.S.C.) Section 130 (which are called “Section 130 funds”), and again in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). These programs allocate money to the States specifically for eliminating hazards at public highway-railroad grade crossings (Federal highway funds cannot be spent on safety improvements at private rail crossings). The FHWA also administers the distribution of Section 130 funds.
In fiscal year 2003, almost $155 million was allocated to the States. This amount has remained relatively unchanged during the last fifteen years (varying from $140 M to $155 M since 1987), as has the method for allocating the money between the States. The Section 130 funds for grade-crossing safety improvements are available at a 90 percent Federal share, with the remaining 10 percent to be paid by State and/or local authorities and/or the railroad. The Federal share may amount to 100 percent for the following projects: signing, pavement markings, active warning devices, the elimination of hazards and crossing closures. The decision on whether to allow 100 percent Federal funding rests with the individual States.
At least half of a State’s Section 130 funds must be used for installing what the Federal Highway Administration has defined as protective devices including the installation of standard signs and pavement markings, the installation or replacement of active warning devices, upgrading active warning devices, including track circuit improvements and interconnections with highway traffic signals, crossing illumination, crossing surface improvements and general site improvements. The remaining funds may be spent on additional protective devices, or on other safety improvements including sight-distance improvements, crossing closures or consolidations, or roadway bridges over the railroad tracks.
Since the beginning of the Section 130 Program in 1974, approximately $3.8 billion have been obligated for grade-crossing improvements. Evaluations of safety improvements made under this program indicate that it has helped prevent over 10,500 fatalities and 51,000 nonfatal injuries.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulates the aspects of grade crossing safety pertaining specifically to the railroads: track safety, train-activated warning devices, and train safety and conspicuity. For example, the Agency’s regulations specify the type of lighting to be placed on a locomotive, the audibility of the train horns, and the inspection, testing, and maintenance standards for active grade crossing signal system safety.
The FRA’s Highway-Rail Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Program includes staff dedicated to reducing the number of collisions at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights-of-way. The FRA works alongside numerous other organizations to spread the word about rail safety, to encourage enforcement of traffic laws, and to promote technologies designed to improve safety. These types of efforts have helped to reduce the number of fatalities at highway-rail crossings by 48 percent since 1994.
The FRA also provides for research into technical aspects of grade crossing safety. The research program addresses evaluation methodologies, visual and audio warnings, motor vehicle and train-presence detection, crossing geometry, crossing-gate and flashing-light technologies, the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) prototype demonstrations, and the impact of the development of the National ITS Architecture. In addition, the risks posed to both highway and rail users have been examined in new risk assessment evaluations. These risk assessments are necessary to develop a more precise understanding of the risks posed by grade crossings and in evaluating proposals to decrease these risks. Research efforts are being coordinated with other operating administrations in the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and Transport Canada (TC).