A collision between a truck or an automobile and a train at a railway crossing can have catastrophic consequences, especially if it occurs in the middle of your own community on one of your roads. Consequences of such incidents are shocking. In 1994, there were nearly 5,000 occurrences nationwide, resulting in 615 deaths and 2,000 injuries. Chemical spills, fires, evacuations, derailments, lengthy highway blockages, and extraordinary demands on emergency service resources are not unusual results of these incidents.
And yet, these numbers clearly have improved over the last two decades. Twenty years ago, accidents were occurring at a rate of more than 1,000 per month, and monthly fatality rates equaled well over 100. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has played a key role in promoting and nurturing state and local enforcement, education, and engineering programs that have made this success possible. DOT is pleased with the results to date but believes that more can be done to save lives.
Secretarial Action on Grade
Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena and the U.S. Congress have mandated additional actions. Secretary Pena has released a 55-point Action Plan specifically addressing crossing safe and trespass prevention on railroad rights-of-way. Part of the plan includes:
* A public awareness campaign entitled Always Expect a Train has been initiated nationwide.
* Regulations have been issued by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requiring railroads to perform scheduled inspections, to do testing, and to place radio PSAs in English and Spanish, hang posters, and distribute printed materials.
* The FRA has issued other regulations requiring that railroads carry out scheduled inspections, testing, and maintenance of the automatic warning devices installed at highway/rail crossings.
* New regulations have been proposed requiring the installation and use of special alerting lights on the leading end of a train locomotive.
* The Federal Highway Administration is investigating the efficacy of new or innovative signage to alert motorists on their approach to highway/rail crossings.
* A police officer from the California Highway Patrol has been assigned to the FRA on a one-year detail to assist in the development of an outreach program to the nation's police officers and officials. (Though over 90 percent of the fatalities attributable to rail operations occur either at crossings or among trespassers on rail rights-of-way, the FRA has no authority to enforce traffic safety or anti-trespass laws. Citizens are necessarily dependent on state and local police efforts.)
Besides these initiatives from the Action Plan, the U.S. Congress has mandated additional safety-motivated actions in the Swift Rail Development Act of 1994. The FRA is to develop and test a system for receiving and forwarding toll-free telephone calls from the public regarding emergencies or malfunctions at highway/rail crossings. Also, the FRA is to issue regulations requiring the use of train horns at all highway/rail crossings, preempting local bans on train horns. This latter initiative rapidly is developing into a controversial and emotional issue, despite whistle blowing's clear safety benefits.
Bans on train horns first came to federal attention along the cast coast of Florida. Seven Florida counties and 12 cities had passed ban ordinances that, when aggregated and studied, were found to have fostered a 195 percent increase in accidents during the ban's time period (10 p. …