As U.S. Economy Improves, Fatalities at Railroad Crossings Rise

Fatalities at train crossings are starting to creep back up after years of decline, possibly due to an improving economy that has increased traffic on both roads and rails.

The number of people killed where rail lines and roads intersect has dropped by more than one-third in the past decade, and since the 1960s has fallen at a faster pace than highway deaths. Last year, however, deaths at rail crossings were on a pace to reach the highest level since 2010, according to Federal Railroad Administration data through November.

Some cite the improving economy and an increase in road and freight-rail traffic. Others blame a lack of spending on railroad improvements, or complacency among local governments. Whatever the reason, this week’s commuter rail accident in suburban New York has safety groups revisiting a problem that many had thought was almost solved.

“For whatever reason, that is the wrong direction. We definitely want to redouble our efforts,” said Joyce Rose, president of Operation Lifesaver Inc., a non-profit group devoted to improving rail-crossing safety.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is investigating how a sport-utility vehicle ended up trapped on the railroad tracks at a crossing in Valhalla, New York, on Feb. 3, resulting in the deadliest accident in the history of the Metro-North Railroad. That commuter line connects New York City and its suburbs.

The SUV was pushed about 1,000 feet by the train, and gasoline from its tank fed a fire that engulfed one of the train cars. The woman driving the vehicle was killed, as were five people on the train.

Rail Crossings

Accidents at these so-called grade crossings have become rarer in the U.S., falling from 3,066 in 2005 to 1,933 in 2009, a 37 percent drop, according to the FRA. Collisions rose to 2,096 in 2013 and were on pace through November of last year to go even higher.

The rate of incidents per million miles of train travel at rail crossings rose in 2013, from 2.71 to 2.80, according to FRA data. It was the only increase in the past decade.

Deaths at grade crossings have followed a similar trend, falling from 359 in 2005 to 248 in 2009 and were as low as 230 in 2012. Last year, there were 239 such fatalities reported, according to the FRA statistics.

Any time an area of transportation bucks the broad trend toward improving safety it suggests the need for more attention, Jim Hall, a former chairman of the NTSB, said in an interview.

Local and state governments should study railroad-roadway intersections more carefully to find ones with the highest risks, said Hall, now the managing partner of Hall & Associates LLC in Washington. Countries in Europe have done a better job of separating rails and roads completely to eliminate the risks, he said.

Economic Conditions

The economic rebound may be partly to blame. After highway and railroad use fell during the recession in the late 2000s, accidents also dropped, said Ian Savage, an economics professor at Northwestern University who has studied the issue. As driving and railroad traffic increased during the recovery, an accident increase would be expected, he said.

There was an average of about 1,600 deaths at rail crossings per year in the 1970s, he said. That has fallen to fewer than 300 per year since 2008, a decline of more than 80 percent.

Another factor may be that most of the easily upgraded crossings have been fixed with better warnings and lights to alert drivers of approaching trains, he said. The uncontrolled crossings that remain tend to be in rural areas with little traffic.

Highway engineers have been trying to divert federal money that must be spent on rail crossings to what they believe are more pressing safety issues on roadways, Savage said.

Driver Distractions

The growing use of mobile phones and other electronic devices may be playing a role in the increase in accidents at rail crossings, Rose, of Operation Lifesaver, said.

“We’re certainly concerned and a lot of our public awareness and safety education material are pointed toward making people aware of the dangers of distractions,” she said.

Her Alexandria, Virginia-based group, which works with railroads and law enforcement agencies to educate people on railroad intersection risks, acknowledges the death toll is far lower than all highway fatalities, Rose said.

“But it is almost always preventable,” she said.