Railroads Responsible for Grade Crossing Signals and Signage

According to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration, Illinois and Missouri are among the most dangerous states in the nation in terms of railroad crossing accidents. They both placed in the top five of all states in number of deaths at highway-rail grade crossing accidents for 2011. Illinois suffered 19 fatalities, placing it behind only California in the category, and Missouri had 12 fatalities, the fifth highest number of deaths.

A highway-rail grade crossing is an intersection where railroad tracks cross a roadway at the same grade or level. They are found on both public and private roads, and there are 250,000 or so such crossings in the nation. At highway-rail grade crossings, railroad companies install the tracks and are responsible for maintaining them, the road surface around and between the rails, and the vegetation near the crossing.

At public road crossings, governmental entities are responsible for maintaining the roadway leading up to the tracks from either direction. Private crossings are on roads not built for public transportation, such as those found on a farm, and are not maintained by any public authority.

Accidents at highway-rail grade crossings account for the majority of all train-related deaths each year – estimated at 300 to 400 annually.

Types of Warnings at Railroad Crossings

Crossings are generally required to have some sort of warning, by regulation or industry standard.

There are two kinds of crossing warnings: active and passive. Just what type of warning a crossing receives is governed by state and federal regulations, the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, industry standards, and contractual agreements. Active warning devices do precisely that: they actively and automatically warn motorists nearing a grade crossing that a train is approaching. They include:

  • Flashing lights and alarm sounds
  • Gates that drop as the oncoming train approaches
  • A combination of both of the above

Passive warning devices are used in conjunction with active warning devices, or by themselves. They don’t warn motorists that a train is actually on the tracks. They merely alert motorists that they are approaching a railroad grade crossing. For obvious reasons, passive warning devices may not be as effective or noticeable as active warning devices. They include:

  • Crossbuck – a white “x” with the words “railroad” and “crossing” painted on them in black lettering
  • Painted markings – alerts painted on the roadway that motorists are approaching a railroad crossing
  • Stop signs – can be used with either of the above.
  • Yield signs
  • Private, or Limited Access, signs

It is up to the railroad companies to make sure the warning devices are posted, in good working order, and in plain sight.

A motorist may not be able to avoid a catastrophic train collision if the railroad company or a grade crossing authority fails to properly maintain the crossing. Railroad crossing accidents should be investigated thoroughly to conclude why they happened and who’s responsible. Many times the duties and responsibilities of the railroad and grade crossing licensee are set forth in agreements that date from decades ago. Detailed analysis is necessary to establish these responsibilities.