The Importance of Railroad Safety

Posted by on Sep 18, 2012

Construction of the Birmingham Regional Intermodal Facility in McCalla, AL has a lot of people thinking about trains these days.  You may have even noticed new billboards going up around the Birmingham area with rail safety messages.  The billboards are part of a “Train Your Brain” education  campaign sponsored by Norfolk Southern Railway.

There is a legitimate reason for the focus on safety.  Statistics show that in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train roughly every three hours.  Approximately 900 deaths occur in the U.S. every year at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights-of-way. In 2011, there were 1,956 reported highway-rail grade crossing collisions in the U.S., and Alabama currently ranks 8th nationally in terms of frequency of highway-rail crossing collisions.

So have you seen the billboards? They contain very honest and straightforward messages and graphics, such as “I raced a train and all I got was this lousy tombstone,” or “I raced a train and all I got was this lousy full-body cast.”

As the billboards suggest, collisions can be devastating for cars and trucks and the people inside due to the high speed and weight of trains.  It’s important, however, to focus on the fact that most of the accidents are preventable.

As transportation engineers, we typically design and maintain safe roadways since the primary mode of transportation we deal with is vehicular. But at highway-rail grade crossings we are dealing with the intersection of two modes of transportation that are very different in physical characteristics and operations.

For these reasons, it’s important to make drivers aware of crossing locations so they can avoid crossing the path of an oncoming train.  We usually think about it from the perspective of making it safer for vehicles crossing the tracks, but it is equally important to protect those driving the trains.

We have experience conducting rail crossing diagnostic safety reviews in Tennessee and Alabama.  In both states, the Department of Transportation  conducts rail diagnostic safety reviews. ALDOT has resumed Diagnostic Reviews under the latest Section 130 Phase Program Document. The program makes funding available to improve rail crossing safety by providing additional warning devices like automated gates and/or flashing lights that are chosen by site specific need according to the recommendations of a rail crossing safety diagnostic team.

Rail diagnostics involve in-depth research and extensive evaluation in the field to study existing warning devices, sight distance issues, types of traffic that utilize the crossings and many other factors. A diagnostic team discusses their findings to make recommended improvements.

Diagnostic reviews are a crucial part of improving rail safety, but getting a new perspective is also helpful. Two Sain employees learned this first-hand on an Operation Lifesaver train ride that we’ll share in next week’s post.

Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Cullman, Alabama, Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states.

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