It seems like it should be obvious that you should never gamble with safety, but, for some reason, people often do when it comes to trains.
Last spring, I visited our regional office in Alaska, and on the way to a meeting, I stopped along the road near Turnagain Arm. Just beyond the parking lot was a fence, some train tracks, and a stunning shoreline overlooking the bay. Signs were posted along the fence, warning visitors not to cross the tracks. On that day—and I’m sure many others—the warnings were ignored. The fence was cut, people were crawling underneath to get to the shoreline, and several families were taking pictures on the tracks. It was a familiar scene. I’ve witnessed the same risky behavior on train tracks and at crossings near my home, and, let me tell you, when it’s between you and a train, you won’t win! Trains weigh tons, they’re moving faster than you think, sometimes you won’t hear them (even though you think you will), and they can take over a mile to come to a stop. Don’t risk it!
Railroads have always had the right of way, and they often existed before the communities that grew around them. Roughly a century before commercial airports began connecting a network of American cities, and long before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established the Interstate Highway System, the first steam engine railroads were created to transport passengers and freight in the United States. Railroads were foundational to our country, pushing westward and growing throughout the industrial revolution. As trains transported more and more passengers and commerce across a young nation expanding its territory, cities and small towns grew alongside the tracks. This history is why we now see so many highway-rail grade crossings in the United States.
Grade crossing safety has been a challenge for decades. Fatalities and injuries resulting from collisions at grade crossings occur all over the United States and are particularly problematic in densely populated urban areas that surround at-grade tracks. States and local governments are primarily responsible for the decisions that make crossings safer, including upgrades to warning signals and infrastructure improvements, such as roadway redesigns, crossing consolidations, and grade separations. But these projects are expensive for states and local governments, and they often require funding from oversubscribed federal grant programs.
In 2008, following an audit by the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Inspector General, Congress required the DOT to identify the 10 states with the highest number of grade crossing collisions and direct those states to develop action plans identifying specific solutions for improving safety at crossings, particularly crossings where multiple accidents had occurred or that were at high risk for accidents. Those states were Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas.
In 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act extended the mandate to all states. The law also required the DOT to develop a model grade-crossing action plan and distribute it to the states to help focus their efforts. This requirement was in response to two NTSB safety recommendations (H-12-60 and -61) issued following a grade crossing collision we investigated on June 24, 2011, in Miriam, Nevada, which tragically took the lives of a truck driver, a train conductor, and four train passengers.
Despite implementation of these recommendations, as well as many others, and the tremendous actions of railroads and state and local governments in partnership with the federal government, grade crossing collisions and the rate at which they occur have increased over the past decade. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data show that there were 2,216 grade crossing incidents in 2019, up from 2,052 in 2010. The rate of incidents per million train miles also increased from 2.911 to 3.273 over the same time period, while fatalities at grade crossings grew from 261 to 293.
Those figures don’t even include trespassers on train tracks, like those I saw in Alaska. Trespasser incidents (not at grade crossings) have increased from 788 in 2010 to 1,092 in 2019. Deaths and injuries have soared from a total of 801 to 1,122 over the last decade. This is tragic, and, as a society, we can—and must—do better.
The NTSB continues to investigate grade crossing collisions and recommend safety enhancements, such as infrastructure upgrades and better signage at crossings. We’ve held public forums and worked alongside the FRA, Operation Lifesaver, railroads, and rail labor to raise public awareness about safety at grade crossings and the need to stay off the tracks. But, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to always be vigilant and take safety seriously. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians must obey warning signs and signals, stay off the tracks, stop and look both ways at passive crossings, and avoid distractions. Trying to beat an oncoming train is reckless and deadly.