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Railroad Crossing Safety for Commercial Vehicles

Railroad crossing safety takes on special importance where commercial vehicles are concerned.  When a train collides with a commercial motor vehicle (CMV), the total amount of damage done is far greater than with a passenger car.  This is because commercial vehicles are significantly larger and weigh much more.  For example, consider a semi pulling a trailer being struck by a train that stretches more than a mile in length.  The sheer mass of the objects involved in the wreck makes the results for more catastrophic.


Additionally, commercial vehicles like school busses usually carry large numbers of people.  If a bus stalls on a crossing grade, then the results can be devastating for many, many people.  One of the worst accidents in transportation history occurred on October 25, 1995, when a school bus carrying high school students in Fox River Grove, Illinois was struck by an oncoming freight train.  Seven students died and 21 more were injured, some critically.


Studies show that many commercial drivers are under-trained when it comes to knowing how to cross rail grades safely.  Unless and until this situation changes, the specter of more deaths from train-CMV collisions will continue to plague communities across the United States.


It’s important to note that railway crossing rules for commercial vehicles differ in many important ways from those for passenger cars and trucks.  This article will look at safety procedures for both professional truckers and bus drivers.


CMV Procedures for Crossing Railroad Tracks

The first step in rail crossing safety begins with route planning.  Commercial drivers should avoid railroad crossings whenever possible.  Officials who manage school or commercial busses should do the same when mapping out routes for such vehicles. 


In the event a rail crossing is unavoidable, drivers should use the following procedures:

  1. Keep an eye out for warning signs that railroad tracks are near.  The classic X-shaped round sign is the best indicator.  Also look for tracks paralleling the road and listen for the sound of a train whistle nearby.
  2. When approaching a crossing, begin slowing the vehicle well ahead of time. 
  3. Come to a stop between 15 and 50 feet from the tracks.  Use a pull-out lane if available.
  4. Turn off the vehicle radio, fan or other climate control devices, roll down the driver’s window, and listen for a train.  School bus drivers should open the folding door and make sure the students are quiet during this time.
  5. Look both ways for a train.  Then look again.  This is known as “doing a double take.”  If trees, posts, buildings, or other objects block a clear view, then rock back and forth if necessary to see around them.
  6. Look for a stop sign or traffic light on the other side of the crossing.  If there is one, then judge whether the vehicle’s length will fit in between the sign or signal and the tracks (remember that trains extend past the track’s width as much as three feet on each side).  If there’s any doubt that the vehicle will fit within the available space, then don’t attempt to cross at that point.  Remember that both busses and trucks overhang their rear wheels by several feet.  Many times, an accident has occurred because the driver forgot this crucial fact.
  7. Be especially alert to railroad crossing safety when the crossing encompasses multiple sets of tracks.  This is common near large urban areas.  Be certain to look both ways for each set, using the double-take method mentioned earlier.  For example, if the grade has three sets of tracks, look both ways a total of six times.  Make sure all the sets are clear before proceeding forward.  Also, keep an eye out while crossing the grade, just in case a train does appear.
  8. If there is no sign of an approaching train, and if there is sufficient room beyond the tracks for the vehicle to fit, then proceed carefully over the crossing.  Do so in the lowest possible gear.  Under no circumstances should gear shifting occur at a railway grade.  This can cause the engine to stall at the worst possible moment.
  9. After making the decision to pull forward, don’t stop.  Occasionally, a crossing gate on the far side of the grade may start to close after a vehicle has started to cross.  If this happens, then keep going.  Break through the gate if necessary, but under no circumstances stop the vehicle while crossing the tracks.
  10. There’s a popular myth that says trains only run at certain times of the day.  Don’t believe it.  Train schedules can be highly irregular, depending on delivery schedules and other factors.  So, if you see tracks, always assume a train might be just down the tracks.


What to Do if the Vehicle Stalls on the Tracks

  1. GET OUT.  Don’t stop to retrieve belongings.  Just exit the vehicle immediately.  Bus drivers should direct their passengers to leave in an orderly fashion.  If there is an emergency door at the rear of the bus, then this is the time to use it.  Evacuating the vehicle as quickly as possible is the highest priority when a stall occurs.
  2. Someone near the crossing is an emergency phone number for the railroad.  Find the number and call it as soon as possible, so that any approaching trains can be warned ahead of time.  Remember that trains require a mile or more (the length of 18 football fields) to come to a complete stop, so giving the engineer as much advance notice as possible is crucial.
  3. Call local law enforcement to advise them of the incident.  Commercial and school bus drivers should contact their superiors as well, to apprise them of the situation.  Under no circumstances should bus passengers be allowed to return to the vehicle for any reason.  Keep everyone calm until help arrives.
  4. If a train is in sight, then immediately start running TOWARDS it, not away.  At the same time, stay as far from the tracks as possible.  This will minimize the risk of being struck by debris when the crash occurs, and it WILL occur if the train can be seen or heard.


Railroad Crossing Signs and Signals

  1. The crossbuck sign consist of two white boards intersecting each other in an “x” shape.  It, along with the round crossing sign, is a sure signs that tracks are close by.
  2. Sometimes the crossbuck sign is combined with a smaller one underneath that says how many sets of tracks lie ahead.  For example, a site with three sets will have the crossbuck sign and the message “three tracks” below.
  3. The high center/high profile sign alerts drivers that the crossing isn’t safe for low-clearance vehicles to use. 
  4. Quiet zone signs usually say “no train horn.”  They indicate that the surrounding community has met the requirements to ban train whistles from being sounded within its limits.  In place of the whistle are enhanced crossing notices, including audible alerts that can only be heard from a short distance away.



Being a commercial driver entails demonstrating the highest levels of professionalism and devotion to safety at all times.  At no other time is this more important than when crossing railroad tracks.  Following the procedures outlined in this article will help to ensure greater safety for both motorists and the public in general.