U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
Highway-railway grade crossings blocked by standing trains can pose multiple risks to public safety. Emergency response times can be dangerously impacted if responders find the fastest route to an incident is blocked by a train in a crossing. For example, Emergency Medical Technicians responding to a victim with heart attack symptoms could be delayed as they try to find an alternate route when the crossing is blocked by a standing train. Fire trucks and response teams, if forced to take another route because of a stopped train, may arrive at a fire scene too late to prevent major structure damage or to safely evacuate trapped victims. Delayed police response can lessen the chance to apprehend a criminal or prevent a more serious crime.
There may be other negative consequences when a train is stopped on a crossing as well. For example, a blocked crossing on a signed truck route can result in the detouring of large trucks over local streets not designed for their use and that cannot safely accommodate their large turning circles or heavy axle loadings. This can expose local neighborhoods to increased risk of collisions or blocked access when these trucks encounter difficulty maneuvering through small, local streets not intended for their use.
Blocked crossings can greatly impact pedestrians in areas with a significant amount of non-motorized users because any increase in detour routes significantly increases the time to travel between destinations at walking or cycling speeds. Blocked crossings near schools are especially critical safety hazards due to the potential for children to cut through the idling trains.
Blocked crossings can also create a time-consuming inconvenience on the motoring public as well. Travel to accomplish daily tasks such as commuting to work, school, shopping, and similar activities can create secondary ramifications that could affect quality of life, extend travel times, and increase vehicle emissions.Depending on the length of time that a crossing is blocked, the type of vehicles at a blocked crossing, and the configuration of the highway, drivers could experience dangerous or illegal responses if the driver attempts to seek an alternate route. Drivers also may try to "outrun the train" by speeding to cross the tracks before the oncoming train reaches the crossing at locations that are frequently blocked.
While the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does not collect data on blocked crossings, anecdotal evidence which includes a significant amount of correspondence seems to indicate the frequency at which highway-rail grade crossings are blocked by standing trains is increasing. Therefore, FRA strongly encourages States to address blocked crossings in their SAPs.
States should consider making a concerted effort to collect and track reports of blocked crossings. These reports can come from many sources such as local citizens, law enforcement, emergency responders, and parcel delivery drivers. Therefore, States are encouraged to publicize their efforts to collect and track reports of blocked crossings at stakeholder meetings. As data on crossing blockages is accumulated, trends in causation and negative effects can start to be extracted. However, effective data collection will depend upon creating a standardized data collection form with all relevant information the States want to receive from the blocked crossing report. Instructions for the form should indicate standard formats and syntax for recording blocked crossing information such as the street name, railroad involved, the locomotive numbers (if possible), the USDOT National Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory number, and the time, date and duration of the blockage.
In cases where crossings are found to be regularly blocked at the same time of day, routine railroad operations may be contributing to the problem. Making contact with local railroad personnel should be the first step for localities seeking to reduce the number and duration of crossing blockages. FRA's Regional Highway-Rail Crossing Managers can often provide contact information for local railroad personnel and help facilitate communication between the local community and the railroad.
It may well be that railroads can hold trains waiting to enter a yard or industry facility at a location that would not require blocking grade crossings. Railroads also can sometimes change places where trains wait to enter single track territory to avoid blocking a nearby crossing.
Localities and railroads can both benefit from improved working relationships with each other. Frequent interaction between local governments and railroad personnel on safety issues important to both parties can provide the opportunity to address the problems resulting from trains blocking grade crossings. Good working relationships can facilitate major mitigation projects, such as crossing consolidation and grade separations. Providing information to the motoring public, particularly in areas where block crossings occur frequently, can also mitigate travel challenges. Communication to highway travel management centers, which serve as highway travel communication hubs, will also assist with transportation operations.
An improved relationship between the locality and the railroad can also provide greater understanding and collaboration to address the complex operational needs of modern emergency response agencies as well as the issues surrounding safe and efficient operation of the railroad. Once emergency services have established their preferred response routes for various neighborhoods or businesses, they should share those routes with the railroad so railroads can anticipate and avoid blocked crossing conflicts through good planning and cooperation. Similarly, when a highway-rail grade separation project is completed, the highway authority should contact local emergency services so those emergency services can adjust their preferred response routes to take full advantage of the newly enhanced accessibility provided by the grade separation structure.
Sometimes, where there are large railroad corridors carrying high volumes of rail traffic that cross busy arterials or run through city centers, it can become financially viable to consider relocating the railroad infrastructure (by means of a rail bypass or a rail grade separation project). An example is the Alameda Corridor in the Los Angeles area. This type of project requires large expenditures by railroads and can involve reconfiguration of local roadway networks to accommodate the new railroad facilities. Close collaboration between railroads and localities is central to the completion of such a large-scale planning and engineering undertaking.
Likewise, it is important to consider the potential of crossing blockages during the design phase of a new crossing or when evaluating the possible relocation of an existing crossing. For example, the likelihood of a crossing being blocked by a standing train is much less if the roadway crosses the tracks at a location other than the one where trains meet or pass each other. Therefore, communication between the locality and the railroad to determine where a new highway-rail grade crossing should be located is critical.
Localities with jurisdiction over land-use planning and zoning should always consider the location and number of grade crossings that could be impacted by long-term land development and the establishment of new residential developments that would be dependent on grade crossings for access into and out of new communities. For example, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) noted in its State Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Action Plan that it actively attempts to address the impacts new developments or planned future developments have on grade crossings and railroad corridors. The CPUC notes that it is more effective to address impacts during development rather than later during inspections or accident investigations.
When selecting a site for a new emergency services facility, localities should consider the location of nearby grade crossings and assess the potential negative impacts on response times that could result should a crossing become blocked during an emergency event.
Some State and local governments have laws or ordinances intended to limit the time a highway-railway grade crossing may be blocked by trains or other rail equipment. Therefore, the State or local government could seek to enforce any relevant requirement it has.
However, many State laws in this area have the effect of regulating aspects of railroad operations currently regulated by FRA (such as train speed, train length, air brake testing, other air brake safety requirements, and the operation of trains at crossings). Therefore, courts have found some State laws on this issue to be preempted, either by Federal railroad safety statutes and regulations, or by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, which establishes the general authority of the Surface Transportation Board over certain aspects of railroad operations.
Where alternative routes exist which enable a motorist to avoid a blocked crossing, providing signs to reroute traffic is a way to mitigate the effects of the blocked crossing. One example of an excellent solution that mitigates the impacts of a blocked crossing is from downtown Kirkwood, MO. Amtrak trains servicing the passenger station in Kirkwood frequently block Kirkwood Road, a major arterial also known as US-61 and US-67. The street network is a grid. A parallel street one block from Kirkwood Road has an overpass over the tracks. When the Kirkwood Road's crossing's automatic warning devices are activated, a sign lights up on Kirkwood Road at the adjacent intersections on each side of the tracks that directs motorists to the overpass on the parallel street. The illuminated sign has an arrow that reads "Use Overpass 1 Block." A driver unfamiliar with the area would probably not know there is an overpass one block away without the sign due to buildings blocking the view of the overpass.