railroad crossing

Expect a Train on America’s Railroads

The United States is home to more than 212,000 highway-rail grade crossings. These crossings, where railroad tracks meet a highway, road, street, or sidewalk at the same level, are dangerous areas for drivers and pedestrians alike.

Here where we at TrafficSchoolOnline.com live and work, old track is being replaced or rehabilitated as part of our area’s first passenger rail project since 1958. Just north of us, freight trains have returned after ten years’ absence. This means we’ll be watching out for trains rolling through crossings where they haven’t been seen in decades.

And we’re not alone. Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, and Washington DC, are implementing and expanding commuter rail and streetcar systems. Freight rail, much of it carrying shale oil from North Dakota, is booming to such a degree that congestion and delays are impacting farm shipments and Amtrak passenger service across the country.

With all this action on the rails, it’s more important than ever to make sure you know how to stay safe near railroads and at crossings, whether you’re in a car or on foot.

Rail Crossing and Trespassing Fatalities Increased Last Year

Railroad crossing safety has improved dramatically in past decades, but there is still work to be done.

Even as rail activity increased, fatalities at highway-rail grade crossings dropped 79%, from over a thousand in 1976 to 233 in 2012. But from 2012 to 2013, highway-rail grade crossing deaths rose to 250, and railroad trespassing deaths rose from 429 to 476, while the overall rail accident rate fell. The Federal Railroad Administration has explained that construction near train tracks and increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic can cause these numbers to fluctuate from year to year, which may explain some of the increase.

Still, railroad trespassing remains the leading cause of rail-related fatalities. Together, railroad trespassing and highway-rail grade crossing deaths make up 95% of all rail-related deaths - most of which are totally preventable.

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Ways to Stay Safe

No Trespassing

  • Most trespassing deaths involve pedestrians who cross the tracks at locations other than designated crossings, or who walk on or next to the tracks.
  • Trains overhang the tracks by three feet or more on either side, and any loose straps hanging from railcars may extend further. Walking, bicycling, or riding an all-terrain-vehicle or snowmobile in this area is extremely dangerous.
  • Never walk out on a train trestle. If a train came, you would have nowhere to go.
  • The only legal and safe place to cross is at a designated public crossing.

Never Risk Getting Stuck on the Tracks

  • Never try to beat a train across the tracks. Trains travel very quickly, and can take over a mile to stop. Even if it looks like you could make it, the consequences if you’re wrong or if you get stuck on the tracks are too severe. If you can see a train coming, wait!
  • Never proceed across railroad tracks unless there is enough room on the other side of the crossing to fit your vehicle safely. Never stop on the tracks.
  • If your vehicle stalls on the tracks and a train is coming, get out of the car and run away from the tracks in the direction the train is coming from to avoid being struck by debris when the car is hit.
  • If you are riding a bike, get off and walk it across the tracks to avoid the risk of falling or getting a wheel stuck.
  • Pay attention to where you put your feet as you walk. Wet weather can make tracks slippery, so step over them instead of on them.

Always Look and Listen

  • Always expect a train. Many trains don’t operate on a schedule, so there is never a safe time to be on or near the tracks.
  • Know your signs and signals, and pay attention to them as you approach a crossing. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, more than half of all crossing collisions occurred where active warning devices such as lights, bells, and crossing gates were installed and operating correctly.
  • Make sure to look and listen for the train itself. Nearly a quarter of all crossing collisions are caused by a vehicle driving into the side of a train already in the crossing.
  • Take out your headphones, or turn off your music and roll down your headphones so that you can listen for an approaching train.
  • After a train has passed, look and listen again for a second train.

Looking for More?

Check out Operation Lifesaver for more information on safety near train tracks and at crossings. You can also request an Operation Lifesaver presenter who will provide safety information tailored to your specific group, from students to professional truck drivers.

The Federal Railroad Administration offers even more information on highway-rail grade crossings and trespass prevention.

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