Stop, Look, Listen, and Think!
ON MONDAY, MARCH 9, 2015, an Amtrak train slammed into an oversized tractor trailer that got stuck on the tracks in Halifax County, North Carolina while trying to negotiate a tight left-hand turn. According to officials, the truck was stuck in the crossing with sufficient time to warn the railroad of the problem, but no one contacted the northbound passenger train before the crash that injured 55 people.
Fifty people were injured in a fiery crash after a Los Angeles-bound commuter train slammed into a produce truck that was stuck on the tracks in Oxnard, California on February 24, 2015. Investigators say that the truck’s driver abandoned his vehicle after taking a wrong turn and getting stuck straddling the rails.
And, a 62-year-old bus driver and a 17-year-old student were killed and 10 other students were injured after a school bus was struck by an empty freight train on January 5, 2015 in Larimore, North Dakota. An investigation into the crash by the North Dakota Highway Patrol found that the bus came to an abrupt stop with its front end over the railroad tracks.
These are just three crashes among the more than 700 truck and bus highway-rail grade crossing collisions that occur each year according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration statistics. Even more startling is the fact that over half of all motor vehicle-train collisions occur at crossings equipped with automatic signals. The majority of railroad crossing collisions occur when drivers disobey traffic signals, fail to yield the right of way at uncontrolled train crossings or try to save a few minutes by darting across the tracks in front of an oncoming train.
Train crossings are like any other intersection. The difference, however, is that a train cannot yield to vehicles, and collisions at railroad crossings are serious and often fatal. When a locomotive engineer sees a vehicle on the tracks in the path of their train, they can only sound the warning horn and apply the emergency brakes. A train in emergency braking will eventually stop, but not in time to avoid a collision. For example, the average freight train consisting of 100 cars weighs anywhere from 12 million to 20 million pounds. While a train is equipped with brakes on every wheel, it takes over a mile for those brakes to overcome the momentum of the tremendous weight pushing the train.
To help avoid a collision with a train at a railroad crossing, there are several important things to remember:
- Most trains do not run on set schedules. They can be on any track, at any time, going in either direction.
- Never ignore active warnings at crossings; do not attempt to drive around gates or race a train to a crossing. It is virtually impossible to accurately judge the speed and distance of an oncoming train. Due to their enormous size and the angle at which vehicles are positioned at crossings, trains appear to be traveling much slower than we think. The parallel lines of the rails converging toward the horizon contribute to the illusion and fool our minds into thinking the train is farther away than it actually is. For your safety and the safety of others, stop and stay in place until the gates are raised and the lights have stopped flashing.
- Don’t forget the possibility of a second train. Many crossing crashes have resulted because of impatience or inattentiveness at multiple-track crossings (a sign directly below the crossbuck will indicate the number of tracks present if there are multiple tracks at a crossing). Wait until the last train car passes, then look and listen for another train on another track or from a different direction before crossing.
- Do not pass other vehicles within 100 feet of a highway-rail crossing. Drivers who do so run the risk of a collision at the crossing. The vehicle being passed may obstruct a clear view of the tracks, or vehicle speed while passing may be too great to stop in time.
While negotiating the more than 250,000 highway-rail grade crossings on both public and private roads in the United States, it is important to follow these safety measures:
As you approach the crossing:
- Check for traffic behind you while stopping gradually. Turn on four-way flashers to warn others and use a pull-out lane, if available.
- Stop no closer than 15 feet from the tracks and no farther than 50 feet from the nearest rail. Roll down the windows and turn off fans and the radio. Listen for warning whistles and look carefully in both directions, moving your head and your eyes to see around obstructions such as mirrors and windshield pillars.
- Never enter a crossing unless you have enough space to fully clear the tracks on the other side without stopping. Don’t get boxed in – don’t let traffic or gates stop you on the crossing. Keep in mind that trains will overhang the track by several feet, so allow yourself plenty of space between your vehicle and the railroad tracks.
As you begin to cross:
- Cross the tracks with care. If you stopped in a pull-out lane, signal and wait for a safe gap in traffic.
- Use the highest gear that will let you cross the tracks without shifting. Avoid shifting gears while crossing tracks, unless in an emergency situation, as your vehicle may stall.
- Don’t ever stop your vehicle on the tracks. Once you start crossing, keep driving, even if the lights begin to flash or gates come down.
If your vehicle gets stuck on the tracks:
- Evacuate the vehicle immediately. Quickly move away from the tracks at a 45-degree angle in the direction of the oncoming train.
- Immediately call the railroad’s posted emergency phone number and specify that a vehicle is stalled on the tracks. Provide the location of the crossing, the DOT crossing identification number (if posted) and the name of the road or highway which crosses the tracks.
Railroads’ Emergency Phone Numbers
BNSF Railway: 1-800-832-5452
Canadian National: 1-800-465-9239
Canadian Pacific: 1-800-716-9132
Kansas City Southern: 1-800-892-6295
Norfolk Southern: 1-800-453-2530
Union Pacific: 1-888-877-7267
If you cannot locate the railroad emergency phone number at the site, call the local police or dial 911.
For additional information about highway-rail grade crossing safety, visit the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website. The agency’s 7 Steps for Safety – Highway-Rail Grade Crossings visor card is available for download in English, Spanish and French.
The Federal Railroad Administration has developed a Rail Crossing Locator Mobile Application to provide users with access to the highway-rail grade crossing database and map features from a mobile device. The tool allows users to locate crossings by USDOT Crossing ID, address or geo-location; access inventory records submitted by states and railroads; and view accident history. The application for iPhones and iPads can be downloaded from the Apple App Store. Android phone and tablet users can download the application from the Google Play Store.