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

Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook - Third Edition

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The first step in addressing the problem of crossings on abandoned rail lines is to obtain information on actual abandonments from the Surface Transportation Board (STB) or a State regulatory commission. Railroads are required to apply to STB for permission to abandon a rail line (49 CFR Part 1152). In addition, some State laws require railroads to also apply for State permission or to notify a State agency of intent to abandon a railroad line. The State highway representative responsible for crossing safety and operations should be notified of these intentions. The State highway agency might work out an agreement with the State regulatory commission that any information on railroad abandonments is automatically sent to the State highway agency. Railroad personnel responsible for crossing safety and operations should also seek the same information from their operating departments.

In a case where the railroad line has been abandoned, but the unused crossing warning devices remain in place, unnecessary delays may result, particularly for special vehicles required by federal and State laws to stop at every crossing. Additionally, if rail features such as track and warning devices are left in place on abandoned lines, road users may become conditioned to ignoring such features, thus potentially reducing the credibility of crossing warning devices on other crossings.

The desirable course of action for abandoned crossings is to remove all traffic control devices related to the crossing and remove the tracks. The difficulty is in identifying a statutorily abandoned railroad line, as opposed to a railroad that has simply fallen into disuse but remains open for railroad purposes. For example, a railroad may discontinue service over a line or a track with the possibility that another railroad, particularly a short-line railroad, may later purchase or lease the line to resume that service. These railroad lines are called inactive lines and removing the track will add substantial cost when reactivating the service.

Another type of inactive rail line is one with seasonal service. For example, rail lines that serve grain elevators may only have trains during harvest season. The lack of use during the rest of the year may cause the same safety and operational problems described earlier.

Once a rail line has been identified as already abandoned or as a candidate for abandonment, the crossings on that line should be identified. This can be determined from the State inventory of crossings or obtained from FRA, custodian of the USDOT National Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory. A field inspection of these crossings should be made to determine if all crossings on that line, both public and private, are listed in the inventory as well as to verify the type of crossing warning devices located at each crossing.

This field inspection provides an excellent opportunity to assess the safety and operations of each crossing on that line. If the rail line is not abandoned, the necessary information has been gathered to improve each crossing by one of the alternatives described in following sections.

If rail service has been discontinued, pending resolution of the abandonment application and formal abandonment, immediate measures should be taken to inform the public. For example, "EXEMPT" signs, if authorized by State law or regulation, can be placed at the crossing to notify drivers of special vehicles that a stop at the crossing is not necessary. Gate arms should be removed and flashing-light signal heads should be hooded, turned, or removed. However, if train service is resumed, 49 CFR 234.247 requires that the crossing warning devices be operational and all FRA-required tests and inspections be conducted prior to operating any trains over the crossing.

The track should be physically removed and all traffic control devices removed following official abandonment if no possibility exists for resumption of rail service. This can be determined by examining the potential for industry or business to require rail service. For example, if the rail line was abandoned because the industry that required the service has moved and other plans for the land area have been made, it could be determined whether need for the rail service will continue. An agreement may be necessary between the public authority and the railroad to accomplish the physical removal of the tracks.


The FRA data indicates as of 2017, there were approximately 36,000 public grade-separated highway-rail crossings in the United States–more than half of these grade-separated crossings have a bridge or highway structure over the railroad tracks. As these structures age, become damaged, or are no longer needed because of changes in highway or railroad alignment, an engineering evaluation should be performed to determine whether the structures should be upgraded or removed.

Currently, there are no nationally recognized guidelines for evaluating the alternatives available for the improvement or replacement of grade-separation structures; however, some States have developed evaluation methods for the selection of projects to remove grade-separation structures.

State Level Guidance–Pennsylvania

The purpose of the Pennsylvania guidance is to assist highway department personnel in the selection of candidate bridge removal projects where the railroad line is abandoned. Both bridges carrying highway over railroad and bridges carrying abandoned railroad over highway can be considered. The factors to be considered in selecting candidate projects are as follows:

For bridges carrying highway over an abandoned railroad:

For bridges carrying abandoned railroad over a highway:

It should be noted that this guidance is applicable to situations that involve abandoned rail lines.

In instances where a railroad continues to operate, some questions to consider prior to removing a grade separation over or under a rail line are as follows:

To ensure a proper answer to these and other related questions, an engineering evaluation, including relative costs, should be conducted. This evaluation should follow procedures described in Chapter 3 of this document.


Other alternatives to highway-rail crossing improvement programs are relocation of the highway or railroad, or railroad consolidation. These alternatives provide a solution to railroad impacts on communities such as noise, traffic delays, and the land use "barrier" effect of a rail corridor; however, the costs associated with relocation or consolidation can be high.

Benefits of railroad relocation in addition to those associated with crossing safety and operations include improved environment resulting from decreased noise and air pollution, improved land use and appearance, and improved railroad efficiency. Railroad relocation and consolidation may also eliminate obstructions to emergency vehicles and provide safer movement of hazardous materials. Collectively, the tangible and intangible benefits may justify the relocation or consolidation of railroad facilities; any one of the benefits alone might not provide sufficient justification for the expense.

Many factors should be considered in planning for railroad relocation. The new location should provide proper alignment, minimum grades, and adequate drainage. Sufficient ROW should be available to provide the necessary horizontal clearances, additional rail facilities as service grows, and a buffer for abating noise and vibrations. The number of crossings should be minimized.

The railroad corridor can be further isolated from residential and commercial activity by zoning the property adjacent to the railroad as light and heavy industrial. Businesses and industry desiring rail service can locate in this area.

Highway relocations are sometimes accomplished to provide improved highway traffic flow around communities and other developed areas. Planning for highway relocations should consider routes that eliminate crossings by avoiding the need for access over railroad tracks or by providing grade separations.

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Page last modified on August 21, 2019
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