For the month of July, I would like to stress to everyone to never, never, never try to beat a surface train at a crossing. This includes light rail, streetcar, commuter/suburban/intercity rail, and even freight train crossings. This post covers all types of rail transport by which an at-grade crossing with a roadway is involved.
Over the past several years, I’ve heard of many horrific stories about vehicles colliding with trains at crossings. Many times, these incidents occur because the driver of the vehicle was trying to “beat” the train at the crossing and did not make it through the crossing in time. These incidents often result in serious injury, or in many cases fatalities, as well as hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in damages to the train involved. If the train derails as a result of a vehicular collision, those costs can easily soar into the millions. Disregarding train crossing barriers and other such safety protocols when a train is approaching is both dangerous and illegal.
Light Rail and Streetcar Crossings
Let’s first take a look at streetcar and light rail crossings, since these alone can be tricky to navigate, especially though urban downtown areas where a traditional railway crossing barrier would not be able to be installed. In both Tampa, FL and Norfolk, VA, there are many downtown railway crossings that do not posses traditional railway safety barriers, so it can sometimes be very difficult to predict when a train may be coming. However, all traffic signals surrounding a light rail or streetcar crossing are programmed with some form of Transit Signal Priority (TSP), which help control signaling cycles to keep both vehicular and train traffic flowing efficiently and safely.
When a streetcar or light rail train approaches a traffic crossing, there’s usually one of two things that happen in conjunction with TSP. Either the train comes to a stop and the signals change to allow vehicular traffic to flow through, or the signals will all change to red to allow the train to pass first. In the first scenario, vehicular traffic will be allowed to cross through the rail crossing per normal for a period of time. Then, the traffic signals change to red to allow the train to safely pass. In the second scenario, traffic signals would turn red immediately and the train would be cleared to pass through, requiring vehicular traffic to wait. You always want to pay close attention when approaching an urban railway crossing such as the one illustrated above because again, it is sometimes hard to predict when a train is approaching. You definitely want to keep your ears open to the train horn, because light rail and streetcar train conductors are required by state and federal laws to use the train’s horn when approaching any at-grade crossing with a roadway. Same goes for mainline railway conductors.
With some light rail lines, like the Tide in Norfolk, there are some crossings that do posses traditional railway crossing arms/barriers. The first indication that a train is coming is always the train’s horn. However, some motorists don’t always hear the horn blaring right away. The second indicator is when the train hits the sensor that prompts the crossing gates to be lowered. As soon as you see the crossing lights flash and the barriers start to go down, please prepare to come to a complete stop, and wait for the train to pass. With these type of crossings, you NEVER want to try to pass around the barrier when it is lowered. This is often times how train vs vehicle crashes occur.
Mainline Railway Crossings
Although it is important to know about light rail and streetcar crossings, please keep in mind that most of the railway crossings that motorists in the US, and even in Europe and Asia, encounter are mainline railway crossings. The photo above illustrates a CSX freight rail crossing that sees tons and tons, and tons…of freight being carried across its tracks each day. Many times, these freight trains can comprise of over 50 rail cars full of coal, oil, wood, or even vehicles being transported to dealerships. It is also at these mainline crossings where most of these horrendous vehicle vs train crashes occur. Again, many times, people try to go around the barriers when they are lowered, thinking they can beat the train. DON’T EVEN TRY IT! One can NEVER predict the speed of a mainline train. Although some freight trains travel somewhere between 25 and 40 mph, some passenger trains in the US have been known to reach speeds of between 70 and 100 mph. Many high-speed passenger trains in Europe and Asia can travel at or above 180 mph.
Signs, signs, and even more signs!
Just like that song from the 1970s, there are lots of signs that you may encounter around various railway crossings. Of course the most prominent sign is the RXR sign, meaning there’s a railway crossing ahead. The image above is actually of a typical traffic intersection in Ybor City. However, the grey box in between the two signals will flash a NO TURN arrow when a streetcar train is approaching. Some municipalities (though I’ve seen them more in Florida thus far) have installed such signs to help warn drivers not to make a turn when a train is approaching the intersection.
Signs like the one above also help warn drivers in cases where there simply is no barrier of any kind around a train crossing. This often is the case in rural areas by which the roadway would not have a traditional crossing arm/barrier. It is at these types of crossings that you want to use extreme caution, because it is much harder to predict when a train may be approaching. In these situations, you want to look left and right several times to make sure there’s nothing visible along the tracks. Also be sure to keep your ears open for the train horn. If you hear the horn, DO NOT CROSS!
Want to see more signs associated with railway crossings? Particularly light rail crossings? Click here, I happened to find an image posted by a driving school that has all kinds of signs that you may encounter at light rail crossings in Norfolk, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and other cities that have light rail lines.
Vehicles on the tracks
I want to briefly mention about situations where you may find that you have to stop at an intersection that has a railway crossing through it. NEVER under ANY circumstances, leave your vehicle sitting idle on the track. There are usually signs at such crossings that make it clear not to do this, yet I’ve seen drivers who do it anyways. It is very dangerous to sit idle on the tracks of a railway crossing, even for a short moment, because if a train approaches and the crossing arms are activated, you not only risk having damage done to your vehicle, but you also risk your life, and the lives of others.
YES, I understand there are circumstances where your car may break down at a railway crossing. I’ve been through situations where my car has broken down. However, you should try to do everything possible to get the car off the tracks as quickly as possible to avoid an even bigger mess. Remember, property can be replaced, but lives can not!
What if the railway crossing signal/arm is malfunctioning?
In the event that you notice that a railway crossing signal/arm is malfunctioning, you will first want to contact local law enforcement so that traffic around the crossing can be controlled. If possible, you will also want to contact the company that owns the railway itself (i.e. CSX, Norfolk Southern, etc). My understanding is that each crossing should be furnished with some sort of an ID number that is issued by the governing department of transportation. Please provide that ID number to the railway company when making your report. If you are not able to locate the ID number, try to provide as many details as possible as to the location of the crossing (i.e. name of highway/street, city, state).
Below, I’ve listed contact information for some of the major railway companies within the US, in case you happen to come across a malfunctioning railway crossing, or other railway emergency situation.
- Amtrak: 1-800-331-0008
- BNSF Railway: 1-800-832-5452
- CSX Transportation: 1-800-232-0144
- Norfolk Southern Corporation: 1-800-453-2530
Please keep in mind that the above numbers are reserved for emergency reporting uses only! Amtrak customers wishing to obtain travel or reservation information should call 1-800-872-7245, or visit www.amtrak.com.
Laws regarding railway crossings in the United States
AAA has compiled this pretty neat list of laws in each state that deal with railroad crossings in its Digest of Motor Laws. Please take a moment to read through them.
Enjoy the rest of your week, and please be safe!