Replacing Unsafe Train Crossings Deemed Too Expensive

By Michael B. Marois | February 26, 2015

The bullet train that will whisk passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles at 200 miles per hour won’t pass through the kinds of intersections that have led to two major commuter-rail accidents this month.

That’s because the California High-Speed Rail Authority is starting from scratch, building its proposed 800-mile (1,287 kilometer) line so that trains will travel either in trenches under road crossings or over them on elevated platforms.

While many of the 250,711 grade crossings across the U.S. have been upgraded with better gates and signal lights, eliminating them is presenting a prohibitive expense to cash- strapped governments. The price of a new bridge to replace the intersection in Oxnard, California, where 28 passengers were injured Tuesday was estimated at $35 million, equivalent to the city’s total debt service payment for this year. Replacing a crossing on New York’s Long Island following a fatal accident cost $85 million.

“They’re generally scores of millions of dollars to do,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Executive Officer Tom Prendergast said Wednesday at the agency’s first safety committee since a Feb. 3 accident in New York’s Westchester County in which six people were killed. “That’s the ideal way, but it’s impossible to do that” for every crossing.

Not Economical

Even as federal transportation funding is stymied by paralysis in Washington, state and local governments have been unable to fill the gap, facing pressure to put more tax money aside to close a $1.3 trillion shortfall in pension benefits promised to public workers. At least 12 states expect budget shortfalls in the current fiscal year, according to the Denver- based National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The cost-effectiveness of upgrading rail crossings tends to be fairly low,” said Christopher Pflaum, president of Overland Park, Kansas-based research firm Spectrum Economics Inc., who has studied the cost of safety at train intersections. “From an economic perspective, getting away from all the emotion involved when trains hit vehicles, just pure dollars and cents and lives saved, spending more money on rail crossings is not a good way to save lives.”

California is the only U.S. state building the kind of bullet train that’s already ubiquitous in Europe and Asia. High- speed rail is built without grade, or ground-level, crossings, both to aid safety and so trains won’t have to slow as they approach intersections.

Stopping Distance

Governor Jerry Brown, a 76-year-old Democrat, contends that high-speed rail is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than building roads and airports. He says he will build the $68 billion system regardless of Republican opposition in Washington and his own state, with help from private investors. California has about $13 billion toward the total needed to build the line including $3.3 billion in federal stimulus funding awarded before Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2011.

Crashes at ground-level intersections of roads and traditional rail lines are difficult to prevent because of the time it takes for a train to stop to avoid hitting a stalled vehicle.

“If you are building something from scratch you can design it to not have any crossings,” said Joyce Rose, president of Operation Lifesaver Inc., a nonprofit group devoted to improving rail-crossing safety. “Certainly the safest crossing is no crossing at all.”

Accidents Climbing

Accidents at grade crossings have been climbing after falling 37 percent to 1,933 in 2009 from 3,066 in 2005, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Collisions rose to 2,096 in 2013 and were on pace through November to rise again last year. The number of fatalities rose to 239 last year, after declining to as low as 230 in 2012 from 359 in 2005.

Three rail cars were toppled Tuesday when a Metrolink commuter train in Southern California collided with a truck stuck on the tracks in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The crossing includes drop-down arms and flashing lights.

Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn said there’s been a proposal for years to build a bridge over the intersection. Two men were killed there last June when the car they were operating was struck by an Amtrak train.

‘Changes Behavior’

In the Westchester accident, a Mercedes-Benz sport-utility vehicle ended up trapped on railroad tracks at a crossing. The SUV was pushed about 1,000 feet by a Metro-North train, and gasoline from its tank fed a fire that engulfed one of the train cars. Five passengers and the driver died in the inferno.

The MTA, the New York state agency that runs Metro-North, said it’s working with Operation Lifesaver. The Alexandria, Virginia-based group operates programs in all 50 states, according to its website.

“If we tell people that they have a likelihood of being severely injured or killed, it changes behavior,” Prendergast said.

A variety of safety systems are used to try to prevent collisions between trains and vehicles. The most common are crossbucks, white signs that crisscross each other with the words “railroad crossing.”

Most easily upgraded crossings have been fixed with better warning signals and lights to alert drivers of approaching trains. Uncontrolled crossings that remain tend to be in rural areas with little traffic.

2005 Accident

Roads leading up to all rail crossing are painted with white warning labels. High-traffic crossings include flashing lights or a combination of lights and drop down gates. Trains in the U.S. are now equipped with automatic whistles that sound when approaching a crossing to alert vehicles and pedestrians.

In 2005, a Metrolink train plowed into an SUV that had been abandoned at a grade crossing north of Los Angeles and ricocheted into another passing train. Eleven people were killed and 180 injured.

In response to that accident and a collision between two trains in 2008 that killed another 25 people, Metrolink embarked on a program to install more four-quadrant gates at grade crossings, as well as zig-zag shaped pedestrian crossings, pedestrian gates, median islands, fencing and other enhancements to deter vehicle and pedestrian accidents.

“Gating everything isn’t an answer because people run the gates,” Pflaum said. “The majority of the accidents are people knowingly crossing in front of a train that is approaching them.”

–With assistance from Alan Levin in Washington, Esme E. Deprez in Santa Barbara and Michelle Kaske in New York.

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