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A Look at the Basics of Railroad Crossing Safety

While highway safety systems get a great deal of publicity, railroad crossing safety is a vital yet often overlooked part of accident prevention.  The lack of attention paid to the issue is tragic, as statistics reveal these sobering facts:

   *  Each year, over 2,000 collisions occur between motor vehicles and trains in the US.

   *  Those accidents are the cause of more than 200 deaths and 400 injuries each year.

   *  According to a study by the DOT, 94% of those incidents were caused by driver inattentiveness or disregard for safety.

   *  Almost 50% of vehicle-train collisions occur at crossings where warning devices such as lights and/or warning gates are in place.

   *  A train-related wreck is 20 times more likely to result in death than a collision with another motor vehicle.

The reasons why train wrecks so often lead to death come down to physics.  Simply put, the larger and heavier a moving object is, the more damage it will inflict on whatever it hits.  The typical train weighs in excess of 3,000 tons and can be more than a mile in length.  Stopping such a massive vehicle requires a length longer than 18 football fields lined up one after the other.  Even if the engineer sees someone on the tracks ahead, he or she won’t have time to stop before striking the person.   

Facts like these become more real to the average person when the national media reports on a tragic wreck.  One such incident occurred on November 16, 2012, when four persons were killed and 17 others injured in a collision that involved a parade float and a train in Midland, Texas.  The truck pulling the float was unable to pull forward due to vehicles in front of it, trapping it directly on the crossing.  The float was intended to honor military veterans, and in fact, several ex-servicemen and women were among those killed or seriously hurt.

Given the lethal potential of train collisions and the high number of incidents that occur each year, what can be done to safeguard the public?  Installing impassible barriers at crossing sites is simply not practical.  More than 200,000 miles of railroad tracks crisscross the United States, and the rails intersect with public roads at tens of thousands of locations.  If officials are to prevent these accidents, then the key to achieving this goal is public education. 

The following is a list of safety fundamentals that should be rigorously taught to drivers.

·   First, understand the message that railroad crossing safety signs are meant to convey.  They’re not intended to simply say “stop” or “slow down before you cross.”  Rather, they’re telling drivers to perform three specific actions:

  1. Stop completely, and do so at least 15 feet away from the tracks.
  2. Look in both directions.
  3. Listen for a train.  If you need to, then roll down the windows, turn off the vehicle’s radio and climate control, and stop talking on the cell phone, but be sure that there’s no sound of a whistle or of an approaching locomotive.


·      Only after fully completing the above three steps should motorists proceed over the tracks.

·      Before starting to drive over the tracks, make sure there’s enough room to cross them completely.  In the Texas incident discussed above, a vehicle ahead of the parade float prevented the driver from moving forward, leading to the tragic outcome.  Don’t get stuck behind vehicles that are on the other side of the crossing.

·      Be especially cautious when faced with double tracks.  Many people only pay attention to the first set, starting over the grade when it’s clear.  All too often, they fail to notice the train coming right at them on the second set of rails.  So exercise a higher degree of awareness when facing a dual-track crossing.

·      Don’t pass other vehicles when approaching a crossing.  The car or truck in front may be blocking a clear view of an approaching train.  Also, the speed used in passing may prevent the driver from stopping before reaching the tracks.

·      To ensure rail transit pedestrian safety, never walk on or near railroad tracks.  Some people think that railway corridors are public property, and use them as their own private hiking trail.  Others walk their dogs or jog alongside the tracks.  This is especially dangerous because such activities distract people from what’s going on around them.  These persons also tend to forget that trains are three feet wider on each side than the tracks they’re on.  Remember that these routes are owned by private companies, and respect them accordingly.

·      Never, ever try to “beat” a train.  Approaching locomotives create an illusion that fools drivers into thinking that the engine is further away than it actually is.  Foolishly trying to outrun a 3,000-ton vehicle is simply that – foolish.

·      Don’t fall for the misconception that trains always run at scheduled times.  Some people think it’s safe to cross the local grade because “trains never come by at this time of day anyway.”  In reality, railway companies frequently get behind their schedule or run ahead of it in order to complete deliveries in less time.  The lesson for motorists is to always assume a train is coming.

·      If a crossing gate in front of your vehicle lowers while you’re crossing the tracks, then drive straight through it.  Don’t hesitate.  Doing so could cost you your life, if indeed a train is approaching.

·      Never drive around lowered gates when approaching a crossing.  If the gate appears to be malfunctioning, and if there’s no sign of an approaching train, then look for a number posted at or near the crossing.  This is an emergency line for the freight company.  Call them at the earliest possible moment to alert them to the problem.


Despite the best of railroad crossing safety, sometimes train wrecks occur anyway.  This is often due to the vehicle breaking down while crossing the grade.  This happens more often than most people think.  Driving over tracks can cause tires to stick, scrape the bottom of the powertrain, or cause other damage that disables a car or truck.  When this occurs, those in the vehicle should do the following:

     1.  Get out of the car or truck immediately.  Don’t try to grab things from the trunk, rooftop, or back seat.  Get at least 50 feet from the tracks.

     2.  Look and listen carefully for signs of an approaching train.  If there’s no sign of one, then look for the freight company’s emergency number at or near the crossing.  Call them as soon as possible to alert them to the stalled vehicle.  DO NOT go back to the car or truck, either to retrieve items or to attempt to fix the problem.  In the moments you’re doing so, a train could show up.

     3.  If a train is approaching when the vehicle stalls, then everyone must exit it immediately.  The driver and passengers should then run TOWARDS, not away from, the train, taking care to stay as far away from the tracks as possible while doing so.  Many people mistakenly believe that running from the train is the best course of action, but in reality this will expose them to debris flying off the tracks after the collision occurs.

As mentioned earlier, public education is the key to preventing train-related accidents.  Officials should strongly emphasize railroad crossing safety, both for new drivers seeking their licenses as well for as seasoned motorists.  As with so many things in life, knowledge makes all the difference when being around trains.