US lawmakers urged to address blocked grade crossings

A photograph of a train at grade crossing.

Congress should consider drafting legislation defining what role each stakeholder has to play in reducing blocked crossings, several witnesses at a recent U.S. House hearing said.

“With little federal oversight and no state authority, there are no tools to incentivize or deter railroads from blocking crossings. … We believe that federal legislation is necessary to bridge the gap between preempted state laws and the [Surface Transportation Board’s] authority on blocked crossings, and to provide consistent direction instead of waiting for case-by-case issues to arise that create immediate negative impacts to public safety and convenience,” said witness Brian Vercuysse, rail safety program administrator for the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The purpose of the Feb. 5 hearing, conducted by the Democrat-led U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, was to see whether and how Washington should regulate the thousands of highway-rail grade crossings in the U.S.

A federal law to identify problematic blocked crossings should define who should investigate the blocked crossings — whether state-certified inspectors or inspectors with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) — and lay out how to communicate information to the freight railroads, Vercuysse said.

“For locations where we’ve had continuous blockages and we haven’t been able to come up with a successful solution, there should be a penalty structure similar to what we’ve seen in state statutes,” Vercuysse said. 

In Vercuysse’s written testimony, he outlined five safety concerns related to highway-rail grade crossings, including issues with conventional track circuits with a loss of shunt, blocked crossings and trespassing.

The loss of shunt, “a primary concern” for Illinois, occurs when the crossing signal and warning device systems fail to properly detect approaching passenger trains. Illinois has been working with the railroads, Amtrak and FRA to address this issue, Vercuysse said.

“We believe there is a need to push towards and fund the next generation of positive train control that activates warning devices at highway-rail crossings and provides more functionality in train signaling, and that does not predominantly rely on conventional track circuits first used in the late 1800s,” Vercuysse said. “This will provide the additional safe method of train detection needed for those loss-of-shunt conditions that occur with light/fast commuter operations and freight train movements that are caused by rail contamination.”

Changes should also be made to existing federal regulations that govern the reporting of activation failures, so that the reporting occurs within 24 hours, which is consistent with reporting of accidents involving grade crossing signal failures, he said.

As for longer trains and their role in blocking grade crossings, Vercuysse said the Illinois Commerce Commission reviewed 40 years of FRA data on freight train and vehicle collisions at mainline grade crossings, finding that the accident rate increased 10.4% for grade crossing incidents between 2010 and 2019 even though train accidents per million-train-miles fell 14% between 2008 and 2017.

Karl Alexy, FRA’s associate administrator for railroad safety and chief safety officer, also said all stakeholders need a role in addressing safety issues at grade crossings.

“Of the stakeholders — railroads, communities, individuals, and regulators — none can solve these issues on its own. We need all stakeholders to take action to prioritize, prevent, and address these issues,” Alexy said in written testimony. “Railroads need to be cognizant of how their operations affect the communities through which they operate. Local law enforcement officials need to prioritize, to the extent possible, enforcement of vehicle traffic signals at highway-rail grade crossings and trespassing laws, and strict prosecution of resulting citations.”

Alexy said the FRA in November 2019 developed and began to implement a highway-rail grade crossing safety business plan aimed at integrating technology at grade crossings to improve grade crossing safety. The agency is also working with the rail industry, state and local governments, and law enforcement on “hot spot” trespassing or accident-prone areas, he said.

Jason Morris, assistant vice president for safety and the environment for Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), laid out eight ways the federal government can improve grade crossing safety, including maintaining or increasing funding for the federal Section 130 program, which funds grants to eliminate hazards at highway-rail grade crossings; incentivizing states to bundle grade crossing projects into a single grant application under existing federal capital improvement grants; and establishing federal policies that encourage or require the accelerated deployment of navigational warnings for motorists approaching grade crossings, among other suggestions.