Can existing technology make railroad crossings safer?

More than 270 people are killed at railroad crossings each year, including six on Metro-North trains this year. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says technology exists to prevent more deaths.

Earlier this year, a Harlem Line train crashed into an SUV in Valhalla, N.Y., killing five people on the train and the SUV’s driver. In 2012, a Danbury Branch train collided with a car in West Redding, killing the car’s driver and a passenger. There were also two other local derailments in the past few years.

And on Tuesday of this week, a passenger train in California hit a truck at a ground-level crossing and critically injured a few people on the train.

Blumenthal, a Democrat, is proposing a bill for more funding to make improvements to rail safety, something he recently spoke about with editors of Hersam Acorn Newspapers.

Rail-grade (or ground-level) crossing accidents reflect more than 2,000 crashes and collisions every year in the United States, he said, including more than 1,000 injuries and an average of 273 deaths.

Waterbury Branch crossings

Connecticut’s main New Haven Line does not have any rail-grade crossings — where cars travel over the tracks — but its spur lines of New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury do have rail-grade crossings. The Waterbury Branch includes the Derby train station that serves Shelton.

“The important point is, they’re preventable,” Blumenthal said. “Every three hours, a train hits a pedestrian or a car at one of these rail-grade crossings.

"Now, half of those rail grade crossings are passive, which is to say they have no gates coming down, no bells, no warning lights; they simply have a stop sign — a passive warning,” he said.

Many of these passive crossings are at freight crossings in the Midwest.

Distance, visibility, lighting

Blumenthal said increasing safety through engineering, education and enforcement should help prevent accidents like the one in Valhalla on Feb. 3.

With engineering, Blumenthal said there could be more distance between tracks and crossing gates, better visibility, better lighting, and better warning to trains.

People should also be educated on the engineering and technology.
Blumenthal visited the Valhalla train crossing where a woman’s vehicle was stuck between the crossing gates and then was hit by an oncoming commuter train. The woman in the vehicle and five passengers on the train were killed.

While visiting the site with a National Transportation Safety Board member, Blumenthal asked what could that woman driver have done.

“He said if she had backed up, the gate would’ve released. Until that moment, I had no idea myself,” Blumenthal said.

Using technology from the 1800s

Blumenthal said there is a variety of technology available, but most of the technology railroads now use was invented in 1872.

Under his bill, Positive Train Control (PTC) would be an added improvement to technology. PTC is described as a kind of GPS for trains and part of the system would enable automatic slowing down or stopping of trains if they’re going too fast at certain points on the track, Blumenthal said.

A similar concept would be used to slow down the train if something was on the tracks, he said.

“If the train is slowed because of a person being on the tracks, a life is saved. It may be well worth the cost,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, plan to introduce this bill later this year.

Enforcement vs. ‘beat the gate’

Blumenthal said enforcement also needs to be taken. “The Federal Railroad Administration says 95% of these rail-grade crossing collisions occur because of driver error,” he said.

A suggestion he had to deter some driver error would be to install the kind of cameras used at toll booths that can record if someone goes through the warning bells. If someone goes through the warning bells and tries to “beat the gate,” they would get a significant penalty.

"People would be deterred pretty quickly from trying to beat the gate — not everyone, which is why [we need] engineering, education, enforcement, the three E’s as we call them,” he said.

Putting safety first

“Safety has to come first. Investment in safety and reliability has to match the need and of course I want to emphasize, on-time performance is not conflicting with safety,” he said.
Trust and confidence are key words Blumenthal said he wants riders to have in taking the train.

“Because ultimately those riders will use the railroad, increase ridership. They’ll enable more revenue for the railroad. They’ll also encourage and enable more investment with those revenues, so it’s a virtuous cycle,” Blumenthal said.

Kaitlin Bradshaw is editor of The Redding Pilot, another Hersam Acorn newspaper and website.