Officials urge caution at railway crossings

Whether through ongoing maintenance or investments in more effective braking technology, the freight and railway industry is constantly looking for ways to make travel safer so wheels can grind to a halt as soon as the engineer pushes or pulls the appropriate buttons or levers. But given the reality of physics, trains can't stop on a dime quite like smaller, less weight-bearing vehicles.

It's with this in mind that the government, in consultation with the Federal Railroad Administration, has re-launched a public safety campaign.

In April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the FRA officially kicked off their "Stop. Trains Can't" safety initiative. Costing an estimated $5.6 million for marketing and advertising, the campaign aims to re-establish the importance of always adhering to all traffic safety laws as they pertain to highway-rail grade crossings. Namely, that drivers and truckers should remain a safe distance from these intersections as soon as the red lights blinker and gate arms drop.

Elaine Chao, secretary for the Department of Transportation, said that tragically, many people have died needlessly by taking risks that proved devastating, particularly for the loved ones left behind.

"So many fatalities at highway-railway crossings are preventable, and this campaign is key to raising public awareness and saving lives," Chao explained.

"Since 2013, fatal railway crossings across the U.S. have totaled 798."

270 people died in railway crossings in 2018
Last year was especially devastating as 270 people were killed by illegally crossing railways. Of these, 99 did so by going around lowered gate arms, which is a high last witnessed in 2008. Since 2013, fatal railway crossings across the U.S. have totaled 798, which is the equivalent of one person or vehicle being struck at a rail crossing every four hours.

Trains have come a long way over the past 20 years or so. In addition to improved railway technology and better maintenance schedules, smart sensors have helped make locomotives and public transit systems more reactive to potential dangers that could lead to serious injury or death. However, trains can't swerve out of the way at a moment's notice and it can take a mile or more for them to come to a full stop, depending on the weight and the number of boxcars attached.

Thus, motorists should always err on the side of caution when trains approach.

Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Ronald Batory indicated that the partnership with NHTSA in leading the awareness effort is something that the FRA takes extremely seriously, as nothing is more important than individuals' ongoing protection from harm.

"We are pleased to collaborate with our colleagues at NHTSA to improve driver behavior at highway-rail crossings and reduce preventable injuries and deaths," Batory said. "Rail safety isn't just about the safe movement of passenger and freight trains; it's also about helping the American public be safe near railroad tracks."

$25 billion devoted to capital expenditures annually
According to the Association of American Railroads, the railway and freight industry spends an estimated $25 billion per year on capital expenditures and maintenance for locomotives, tracks, freight cars and other equipment. On a percentage basis, the railway system commits 19% of its earnings toward these purposes, a stark comparison to the 3% average among all manufacturers.

However, a number of lawmakers believe the industry isn't going far enough, particularly as it pertains to emergency braking systems. Back in 2008, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. passed a law that requires trains to be equipped with automatic braking functionality after a fatal railway crash claimed the lives of 25 people in Southern California, which was widely reported at the time.

The mandate for when this rule actually goes into effect has been delayed a number of times, as the FRA says investments, training and installation of this technology could cost the industry upwards of $500 million, according to the Washington Post. Indeed, expenses could exceed $49,000 a piece for 2,500 of the nation's locomotives.

"Supporters of automatic braking systems believe the technology has the potential to reduce fatal railway accidents."

Do the costs outweigh the benefits?
Supporters of automatic braking systems believe that the technology has the potential to reduce the severity of injuries resulting from crashes with motor vehicle operators and passengers and save lives. However, as reported by Trains magazine, a 2017 study from the Transportation Research Board determined that the costs of investing in electronically controlled pneumatic brakes may outweigh the benefits.

"The committee is unable to make a conclusive statement concerning the emergency performance of ECP brakes relative to other braking systems," said Louis Lanzerotti, committee chair member of the TRB, which is a division of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some providers have already implemented the technology, including seven of the nation's largest freight companies. But as USA Today reported, its in place on just 56% of railway routes, based on data compiled by the Association of American Railroads.

In the meantime, safety officials urge the public to adhere to all traffic laws and always avoid taking unnecessary risks.

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