WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of people die each year at railroad crossings, some recklessly trying to outrun trains, others who never see danger coming.
Now, with Amtrak pushing to introduce high-speed trains in densely populated areas, grade-crossing safety has become a more pressing issue. The federal government is steering money toward crossings where fast trains may operate, and state officials are scrambling for ways to improve safety.
"High-speed (rail) corridors are where you have lots of traffic, pedestrians, highway users and lots of trains," said Gerri Hall, president of Operation Lifesaver, a private organization that seeks to reduce train-car and train-pedestrian accidents. "It's a mix that warrants all of our attention."
There were 259,554 grade crossings in the United States as of 1999, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, and they were the sites of 402 fatalities. By comparison, 83 people died in commercial airline crashes last year.
Though the railroad fatality figure has decreased in the past 25 years, many crossings remain extremely dangerous. For example, since 1975 a crossing in Holbrook, Ariz., has had 18 accidents and 10 deaths. One in San Diego has been the site of eight accidents and six deaths.
In most areas of the country, the maximum speed for passenger trains is 79 mph. But Amtrak and many state governments are contemplating speeds of 100 to 150 mph for new high-speed trains. Amtrak's new Acela Express already hits a top speed of 150 mph during its Washington-to-Boston trip.
Where speeds exceed 125 mph, the Federal Railroad Administration requires that grade crossings be eliminated. But that is expensive. Building a bridge to separate rail from road can cost $2 million to $4 million, said Randy Wade, a rail planner with Wisconsin's Department of Transportation.
For now, the federal government is distributing $5.2 million a year for grade-crossing improvements in 10 rail corridors designated for future high-speed service. "Obviously we would like to see more money going toward that," said Anne Chettle, director of public affairs for the High-Speed Ground Transportation Association, a trade group.
Amtrak has asked Congress for permission to raise an additional $12 billion over 10 years for high-speed rail, much of it to improve grade crossings.
Meanwhile, states interested in developing high-speed rail are exploring different approaches:
-- The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, which envisions a high-speed network linking nine states over 3,000 miles of track, will limit top speeds to 110 mph to avoid the need to rebuild crossings. Wisconsin is examining a crossing gate reinforced with cables to restrain cars; Illinois is looking at a similar system using a net.
-- North Carolina's "sealed corridor" program has closed 33 crossings along the Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte route. At other crossings, the state plans to add advanced safety technology, like extra-long barrier arms or concrete median barriers to prevent cars from snaking around gates. The state started the program after the federal government designated a Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
-- California, hoping to avoid the grade-crossing problem entirely, has proposed construction of a new, 700-mile rail line completely separated from roadways. The cost would be $25 billion for a traditional steel-wheel system, able to reach speeds of 220 mph, or $33 billion for a cutting-edge "magnetic levitation system" that would allow speeds of 240 to 300 mph.
Grade crossing safety is an issue as well for the nation's freight railroads. But it is acutely pressing for Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, which is staking its future on high-speed intercity trains.
Amtrak President George Warrington calls railroad-highway crossings "our single biggest safety issue now" and says they place the railway at a competitive disadvantage. Trains now must slow at thousands of crossings across America, "so it costs us time, it costs us money as an industry," he said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.