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FHWA Home / Safety / HSIP / Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook - Third Edition

Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook - Third Edition

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Note: This document summarizes current practices but does not set standards; practitioners are advised to check current local standards and requirements (refer to Disclaimer and Quality Assurance Statement). Users of the data provided within this document should anticipate possible variations from current information within the FRA databases, which are updated monthly.

This chapter presents engineered treatments applicable to highway-rail and pedestrian crossings. The full range of options from closure, reconfiguration, and grade separation to application of passive treatments and active devices is addressed. The applicability of each option or treatment is presented in terms of those typical conditions that would indicate consideration of such a device or treatment. Specific guidance on device selection is presented in Chapter 3. This chapter also addresses over-arching legal and policy considerations that should be kept in mind.

Note: Traffic control devices defined in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) terms are referenced along with their respective sign number (in parentheses) throughout this section.


Current FHWA regulations specifically prohibit at-grade intersections on Interstate highways (AASHTO "A Policy on Design Standards–Interstate System," May 2016).(6) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has established maximum permissible speeds by track class category (refer to Appendix B, Table B-5 for track classes and allowable speeds). Current FRA regulations require that crossings be separated or closed at locations where trains operate at speeds above 125 mph–track Class 8 or 9 (49 CFR 213.347(a)). Additionally, on FRA track Class 7 (111-125 mph), an application must be made to FRA for approval of the type of warning/barrier system to be used at highway-rail grade crossings along the track (49 CFR 213.347(b)). The regulation does not specify the type of system but allows the petitioner to propose a suitable system for FRA review. These requirements are summarized in Table 1.

In 1998, FRA issued an Order of Particular Applicability for high-speed rail service on the Northeast Corridor.(7) In the Order, FRA set a maximum operating speed of 80 mph over any highway-rail crossing where only conventional warning systems are in place and a maximum operating speed of 95 mph where four-quadrant gates and presence detection are provided and tied into the signal system. Crossings are prohibited on the Northeast Corridor if maximum operating speeds exceed 95 mph.

Table 1. Federal Requirements for High-Speed Rail Crossings

Active Warning/Barrier with FRA Approval Grade Separation or Closure
Interstate highways Not allowed Not allowed Required
High-speed rail > 79 mph 111-125 mph > 125 mph

Special consideration applies to crossings where train speeds are expected to exceed 110 mph. FRA regulations require the use of an approved "barrier system" if train operation is projected at 111-125 mph speeds. As stated in the 2009 Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Guidelines for High-Speed Passenger Rail published by the FRA(8), barrier systems need to meet the following criteria to be effective:

The interaction between high-speed trains and pedestrians should be carefully considered when identifying appropriate warning systems and treatments to be implemented. The single largest cause of deaths associated with railroad operations is pedestrians trespassing on railroad property. Special consideration should be applied to controlling trespassing attempts.

Private grade crossings on high-speed rail corridors are considered separately. Such crossings may be located along non-public roads within industrial, residential, or agricultural lands. Private crossings generally exist because of an agreement between a railroad and a land owner. Therefore, in most cases those parties determine the appropriate treatment for the crossing. Where private crossings are open to public travel, consideration should be given to providing similar treatment to that which would be provided at a public crossing. In addition, if private crossings exist within a proposed quiet zone, a diagnostics review may be required, and a determination should be made of an appropriate treatment. Additional information can be found in FRA's regulations at 49 CFR 213.347, including the requirement that crossings be separated or closed at locations where train speeds exceed 125 mph.


The first alternative that should always be considered for a highway-rail crossing is elimination, which can be accomplished by the following:

Closure of a crossing provides the highest level of crossing safety compared to other alternatives, because the point of intersection between highway and railroad is removed. However, the effects of closure on highway and railroad operations may not always be completely beneficial. The major benefits of crossing closure include reductions in certain types of collisions and decreased delays to highway and rail traffic, as well as lowered maintenance costs.

Decisions about whether a crossing should be eliminated or simply improved depends upon safety, operational, and cost considerations. However, federal regulation (23 CFR 646.214(c)) specifies that "all crossings of railroads and highways at grade shall be eliminated where there is full control of access on the highway (a freeway) regardless of the volume of railroad or highway traffic."

The following four types of delay can occur on highway traffic by crossings:

Another benefit of crossing closure is the alleviation of maintenance costs of surfaces and traffic control devices. As discussed in Chapter 5, these costs can be quite substantial for both highway agencies and railroads.

Some States have incentive programs intended to encourage crossing closure. Additionally, railroads may participate in a project resulting in a closure either on a case-by-case basis or as part of an initiative (one State's program is described in the following section). Crossing closures are usually accomplished by closing the highway. The number of crossings needed to carry highway traffic over a railroad in a community is influenced by many characteristics of the community itself. A study of community travel demand should be conducted to determine major origin and destination points and assess what is needed to provide adequate highway capacity then needed to satisfy demand. Thus, optimum routes over railroads can be determined. Traffic over several crossings may be consolidated to a nearby crossing with flashing-lights and gates or over a nearby grade separation. Alternative routes should be within a reasonable travel time and distance from a closed crossing. The alternative routes should have sufficient capacity to accommodate the diverted traffic safely and efficiently. The impact on pedestrian travel should be evaluated as well.

Identifying and eliminating redundant, closely spaced, or unneeded crossings should be a high priority. The decision to close or consolidate crossings requires balancing public safety, convenience, and access with the needs of the railroad to operate trains safely and efficiently. The crossing closure decision should be based on economics–comparing the cost of retaining the crossing (e.g., maintenance, collisions, and cost to improve the crossing to an acceptable level if it remains, etc.)–against the cost (if any) of providing alternate access and any adverse travel costs incurred by users having to cross at some other location. While this can be a political and sensitive or controversial issue at the local level, the economics of the situation cannot be ignored. This subject is addressed in the FRA's Research Results: Crossing Consolidation Guidelines, RR 09-12.(10)

Challenges to obtain successful closures include negative community feedback, funding, and the lack of forceful State laws authorizing closure or the reluctant utilization of State laws that permit closure.

As part of the process of implementing a crossing closure, it is important to consider whether the diversion of highway traffic may be sufficient to change the type or level of traffic control needed at other crossings. The surrounding street system should be examined to assess the effects of diverted traffic. Often, coupling a closure with the installation of improved or upgraded traffic control devices at one or more adjacent crossings can be an effective means of mitigating local political resistance to the closure.

Legislation that authorizes a State agency to close crossings facilitates the implementation of closures. These State agencies should utilize their authority to close crossings whenever possible. A State agency may be able to accomplish closure where local efforts may not have achieved success. Local opposition sometimes can be overcome by emphasizing the benefits resulting from closure, such as improved traffic flow and safety as traffic is redirected to grade separations or crossings with active traffic control devices. Railroads often support closure not only due to safety concerns but also because closure eliminates maintenance costs associated with the crossing. Refer to the following document for State-by-State specifics: "Compilation of State Laws and Regulations Affecting Highway-Rail Grade Crossings."

Achieving consensus is integral to the closure process. Closure criteria vary by locality but typically include consideration of the following:

Locations with more than four crossings per railroad route-mile with fewer than 2,000 vehicles per day and more than two trains per day are prime candidates for closure.

To assist in the identification of crossings that may be closed, the systems approach might be utilized, as discussed in Chapter 3. With this method, several crossings in a community or rail

corridor are improved by the installation of traffic control devices, while other crossings are closed or grade separated. This is accomplished following a study of traffic flows in the area to ensure continuing access across the railroad. Traffic flows are sometimes improved by the installation of more sophisticated traffic control systems at the remaining crossings.

Another important matter to consider regarding crossing closure is access over the railroad by emergency vehicles. Crossings frequently utilized by emergency vehicles should be candidates for grade separations or the installation of active traffic control devices. Specific criteria to identify crossings that should be closed are difficult to establish because of the numerous and various factors that should be considered. Refer to Chapter 3 for criteria that may be used for crossing closure and to Section 8A.05 of the MUTCD for provisions relevant to crossing closure. Additional information regarding grade crossing closure and improvement programs can be found on pages 485-486 of the Traffic Control Devices Handbook.(2) It is important that these criteria not be used without professional, objective, engineering, and economic assessment of the positive and negative impacts of crossing closures.

When a crossing is permanently closed to highway traffic, the crossing surface and approaches should be obliterated and removed, leaving as few traces of the former crossing as is practicable. When a crossing is closed to train traffic, the highway authority, where practical, should remove the tracks within the highway to reduce future maintenance costs. Paving over tracks with asphaltic paving is not recommended because it is possible for "reflection cracks" to subsequently emerge.

Generally, the railroad is responsible for removing the crossing surface and traffic control devices located at the crossing, such as the Crossbuck sign, flashing-light signals, and gates. The railroad is also generally responsible for restoring the ditch line and removing any evidence of a crossing on railroad property, including the drainage.

Depending on the agreement between a highway authority and the operating railroad(s), the highway authority may be responsible for actions including but not limited to the following:

Consideration should also be given to advising motorists of alternate routes across the railroad. If motorists use the crossing being closed, they should be given advance information about the closure at points where they can conveniently alter their route. Consideration should be made for pedestrian activity at closures as well; nearby, easy alternative routes should be provided for pedestrians to use to discourage trespassing.


A highly effective approach to improving safety involves the development of a program of treatments to eliminate significant numbers of crossings within a segment of rail line while improving those that are to remain at grade. Both FRA(10) and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)(12) have developed guidelines for crossing consolidation. State departments of transportation, road authorities, and local governments may choose to develop their own criteria for closures based on local conditions. Whatever the case, a specific criterion or approach should be used to avoid arbitrarily selecting crossings for closure.

Preparation of a "traffic separation study" is a good way to start. As part of a comprehensive evaluation of traffic patterns and road usage for an entire municipality or region, traffic separation studies determine the need for improvements and/or elimination of public highway-rail crossings based on specific criteria. Traffic separation studies progress in three phases: preliminary planning, study, and implementation.

Crossing information is collected at all public crossings in the municipality. Evaluation criteria include collision history, current and projected vehicular and train traffic, crossing condition, school bus and emergency routes, types of traffic control devices, feasibility for improvements, and economic impact of crossing closures. After discussions with the parties involved, these recommendations may be modified. Reaching a consensus is essential prior to scheduling presentations to governing bodies and citizens.

A key element of a traffic separation study is the inclusion of a public involvement element, including crossing safety workshops and public hearings. The goal of these forums is to exchange information and convey the community benefits of enhanced crossing safety, including the potential neighborhood impacts from train derailments involving hazardous materials that can result from crossing collisions.

The following examples describe crossing consolidation as undertaken by different stakeholders:

State Program Example–North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT)

Many States have crossing closure programs and procedures: Although older, a relevant example of a closure program is the effort begun by the NCDOT in 1993. North Carolina recorded its 300th crossing closure in 2017 and the NCDOT "Sealed Corridor" effort is an excellent model of a State-level crossing program which included grade separations, crossing closures, and improvements including four quadrant gate systems, medians, and test of vehicle detection radar to crossings left open.(13) The NCDOT's crossing closure criteria considers the following:

The NCDOT considers the following factors in deciding whether to close or improve a crossing:

Closure implementation strategies used by NCDOT include the following:

Local Program Example–San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments (SGVCOG)

A local grade crossing closure program developed in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California is one of the largest local programs of crossing improvements, closures, and grade separations. The SGVCOG conducted a study of 55 grade crossings which identified 19 grade separations to eliminate 23 crossings as well as improvements to crossings remaining at grade.(14) SGVCOG obtained local funding and established the Alameda Corridor–East Construction Authority in 1998. In 2018, the Authority was advancing the final grade separations for construction and is nearing the final stages of a large program which includes 19 grade separations to eliminate 23 at-grade crossings along with implementing safety and mobility upgrades at 53 crossings.(15)

Railroad Program Example–BNSF Railway Company (BNSF)

One crossing closure initiative was established by BNSF in 2000.(16) This initiative is part of BNSF's crossing safety program, which has the goal of reducing crossing collisions, injuries, and fatalities. The crossing safety program also includes community education, enhanced crossing technology, crossing resurfacing, vegetation control, installation of warning devices, and track and signal inspection and maintenance. In March 2006, BNSF closed its 3,000th highway-rail crossing since the beginning of its crossing closure initiative. By eliminating unnecessary and redundant crossings, BNSF has made an important contribution to community safety while also improving the efficiency and safety of its rail operation. The following are the three key elements of BNSF's crossing closure initiative:


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Page last modified on November 14, 2019
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