The February 3 Metro-North crash site in Westchester County, N.Y., resembles hundreds of thousands of at-grade railroad crossings around the country. The train tracks and the road are on the same level, and only an arm gate with flashing lights signals drivers that a train is approaching and prevents them from crossing the tracks.
When a Metro-North commuter train, which had departed from Grand Central Station in New York City, collided with a sport utility vehicle that was on the tracks at a Valhalla, N.Y., crossing Tuesday night, six people died and 15 were seriously injured. Train safety experts say this type of at-grade crossing is all too common across the U.S. and should be replaced with safer crossings. "We have thousands and thousands of crossings," says Thomas Johnson, president of the National Association of Railroad Safety Consultants and Investigators, "so you're not going to fix them overnight."
Every year about 270 people die at these crossings, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The U.S. allocated $220 million in 2014 to the states in order to improve the safety of at-grade crossings. Officials, experts and politicians know they are a problem, and even the best safety precautions cannot prevent human error. So what does a safer train crossing look like?
At the Commerce Street crossing where the Metro-North crash occurred, commuter trains traveling north from New York City emerge from the woods. A single red-and-white bar goes down on either side of the road to warn drivers of oncoming trains. The sign on the bar indicates there is a railroad crossing with two tracks. The woman driving the SUV was stopped on the tracks when the train collided with her car. It's still unclear why.
Technology could make these at-grade crossings much safer in the future by taking some of the uncertainty out of dated warning systems currently in use. A team in Australia designed a warning system that connects the incoming train to nearby vehicles via GPS and wi-fi. As the train gets closer, the warning inside the vehicles gets louder and flashier. The researchers are working on implementing the technology in Queensland. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a long-term Connected Vehicles project that has been developing ways to transmit safety information to drivers from other vehicles and devices in order to warn drivers of dangers like oncoming traffic, red lights and railway crossings. And in the future vehicles may drive themselves, eliminating human error altogether. Google has taught its self-driving car how to recognize the signs at rail crossings and wait until the tracks are clear.
In terms of current options Johnson says the best way to improve crossing safety is to eliminate at-grade crossings altogether by using grade separation—either the train or the cars go over the other on an overpass. This is the most expensive fix, though. If it's too expensive or not feasible to separate the grades, he says, the next-best option is quad gates—an additional set of gate arms on either side of the road that make it harder for vehicles to drive around them. Next, Johnson says every railway crossing should have high visibility so people have a better chance of seeing a train coming. This includes trimming brush or trees around the crossing, having functional lights and avoiding building crossings at curves in the road. It's easiest to see a train coming at a crossing if the road meets the railroad tracks at a 90-degree angle, he says. Improving railroad-crossing safety, he adds, has to be a holistic fix. "It's a teeter-totter effect between how much convenience you want and how much safety."
Evan Eisenhandler, executive director of New York State Operation Lifesaver, says drivers play a huge role in safety, too. Operation Lifesaver is a national nonprofit organization that educates youth, drivers and emergency personnel about railroad crossing safety. He says drivers should avoid distractions when they're approaching a railroad crossing, be prepared to stop, look both ways on the tracks for incoming trains and listen for the whistle. Obeying the traffic signs and railroad bars are crucial, as well, because it is illegal to drive around railroad crossing gates in the U.S.
Although the details of the Metro-North crash are still unclear, improving at-grade crossings can help prevent crashes like it. By slowly updating these crossings around the country over the last two decades, fatalities have decreased by 54 percent, according to the FRA. But there are still more improvements to make on the more than 212,000 highway–rail grade crossings in the U.S.