Have you been Railroaded?

Every year, hundreds of Americans are killed, and hundreds more injured in collisions between trains and motor vehicles at highway railroad grade crossings.  The various railroads work hard to convince the public, and the law enforcement agencies who investigate these accidents, that they are caused by inattentive drivers who failed to see and avoid an oncoming train.  Most law enforcement agencies do not have personnel formally trained in the investigation of railroad grade crossing collisions, and the resulting reports prepared regarding these too often catastrophic injury accidents and deaths of motorists struck by trains typically fault the driver and find no contributing fault on the part of train crew or railroad.

There is far more to the story than what is usually reported in a typical train collision accident report.  Simply stating that a motorist drove in front of a train is only the beginning of the investigation, not the end.  Unless careful analysis of the railroad crossing and conduct of the train operator is taken into consideration, it is impossible to determine why the accident happened.  The following are some considerations that must be taken into account in the investigation at any railroad grade crossing collision.

First, railroad crossings may fail to conform to federal, state or industry standards and requirements enacted to protect the lives and safety of crossing users.  There are two types of railroad crossings: public and private.  Public crossings are those involving public roads and highways (typically city, county or state) which pass across railroad tracks.  In Arizona, such public crossings are regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission, and in every state a public agency is responsible for determining the appropriate crossing protections in place at those public crossings.  Private crossings are those involving roads, driveways or other access routes across railroad tracks that are not public roadways.  These private crossings can range from infrequently used transitions between farm fields, to heavily traveled thoroughfares utilized by members of the public on a regular basis.

Crossing protections generally fall into two types: passive and active.  Passive protections involve signs such as the typically seen railroad crossbuck sign, yield signs and stop signs.  These signs are supposed to alert drivers that they are approaching a railroad crossing.  However, they do not provide any information to the driver about whether, in fact, a train is approaching.

Active crossing protections consist of automatic gates and flashing lights or flashing light systems which are train activated and alert a driver not only that they are approaching a railroad crossing, but that there is, in fact, a train approaching that crossing.  In the case of automatic gates, a physical barrier is required to come down over the roadway 20 to 30 seconds in advance of the approach of the train in order to give motorists a reasonable opportunity to stop in advance of the crossing.

As noted previously, with respect to public crossings, a public agency is involved in the process of determining what crossing protections are appropriate at a particular crossing.  With private crossings, however, the railroad is generally solely responsible for determining what crossing protections are in order.  Railroad companies in the State of Arizona are required to confirm that motorists are given reasonable notice of the approach of the railroad’s trains and that crossings maintained by the railroad are reasonably safe for use of the traveling public.  Simply placing a stop sign or a crossbuck sign is not enough to make crossings reasonably safe.  Studies have shown, in fact, that stop signs placed at private crossings may make such crossings less safe and increase the potential for a collision.

Before such signs are placed at crossings, railroad companies are supposed to conduct an engineering study or exercise engineering judgment to determine what the appropriate signage should be at that crossing.  Such an engineering study should take into account visibility at the crossing, not just from a position at a stop sign immediately in advance of the railroad tracks, but upon the approach of the railroad tracks so that drivers can determine well in advance whether a train is approaching.  Similarly, the railroad is required to take into account such things as the accident history of a crossing, whether the crossing is used by school buses, hazardous material vehicles, slow moving farm trucks, semi-tractor trailers and other types of traffic.  The railroad is also required to take into account the number of trains utilizing the crossing daily and the speed of those trains (which for freight trains may be as much as 75 mph, 79 mph for passenger trains).

Without considering all of the above factors, it is impossible to determine why a driver was unable to discern that there was an oncoming train in time to avoid being struck by the train.  However, law enforcement investigators assigned to handle train accident cases frequently are not trained in the above analysis and are misled by the propaganda spread by railroads that all accidents are caused by inattentive drivers.

Second, there are train operations issues which must be considered after a train accident as well.  These include determining whether the engineer was traveling at the appropriate speed as set by the railroad timetable, and whether any “slow order” that may have been in effect.  The railroad engineers in Arizona are also required, with limited exceptions, to sound the train horn approximately one-quarter mile in advance of the crossing, and to continue doing so until the train reaches the crossing.  Failure to provide this signal in the required pattern may be a contributing factor to some collisions.  Likewise, train engineers are required to keep a proper lookout and determine whether actions, including deploying the train’s emergency brakes, may be necessary to avoid a collision at a railroad crossing.

In sum, there are many and various reasons why drivers are not given the appropriate information at railroad crossings to allow them to recognize that a train is approaching in time to avoid being struck.  Without fulling analyzing the facts of each collision, it is impossible to determine whether the railroad may have been the sole or contributing cause of one of these catastrophic events.