Despite drop in collisions, intersection of roads and rails still a dangerous place

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Gradecrossing1
Traffic wastes no time getting moving again, even before the gates are fully up and flashers deactivated at 153rd Street in Orland Park, Ill., on Nov. 26, 2010.
Greg Durling
HOUGHTON, Mich. – The number of railroad crossing fatalities in the U.S. has dropped more than 80 percent since the 1980s. But despite that remarkable statistic, the intersection of roads and rails are still a dangerous place, and last week's fatal Metro-North accident served as a tragic reminder of that fact.

Five passengers and one driver were killed on Feb. 3 when a Metro-North Harlem Line train struck a vehicle that was on the tracks near White Plains, N.Y. The wreck was the deadliest in the commuter railroad’s history and is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. Among the questions investigators will be asking is why the woman's vehicle was on the tracks.

While investigators are looking into why this specific accident happened, students of railroad engineering at Michigan Technological University in Houghton are looking into new technology that could help avoid similar accidents in the future, according senior research engineer David Nelson.

“Every year there are fewer and fewer people killed in grade crossing accidents – in the 1980s there were about 600 fatalities a year, now there are about 200 a year – but that's not perfect and that's why we keep researching this,” says Steven Landry, one of Nelson's students and a graduate research assistant.

Landry says there are a number of reasons why grade crossing fatalities have dropped in recent decades. For one thing, the number of grade crossings have dropped by 28 percent, from 215,428 in 1980 to 155,370 in 2000, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The number of gated crossings has also gone up by 111 percent from 1980 to 2000. Numerous studies have shown that gated crossings are 85 to 90 percent more effective than non-gated crossings.

The students at Michigan Tech have studied driver behavior at railroad crossings on numerous occasions, either by going into the field or by putting subjects into driver simulations. In those simulations, the drivers are not told that they are being observed for how they react at grade crossings. During the test, the subjects' eyes are tracked to see exactly what they are looking at and that information tells the researchers which types of crossing gates gain the attention of the driver.

But Landry tells Trains News Wire that one of the most effective technologies in preventing grade crossing accidents may not be a gate but be something that is already in millions of people's vehicles: satellite based navigation systems. Landry and the others at Michigan Tech say having a GPS system warning inside a vehicle alerting a driver that a train is quickly approaching a nearby crossing could be effective in preventing future accidents.

“Maybe if there was some sort of in vehicle technology that told the driver that a train was imminent they would have been aware of the urgency of the situation,” says Landry of the New York crash.

Grade crossing figurations for high-speed passenger railroads are determined by a Federal Railroad Administration formula, according to Tina Hissong, manager at the Michigan Department of Transportation's Office of Rail. For trains with a track speed of 110 miles per hour or less, normal grade crossings are permitted. Between 110 and 125 mph, the FRA only permits crossings if there is an “impenetrable barrier” that blocks highway traffic. Grade crossings are not permitted on any line with a track speed above 125 mph. The track speed on the Harlem Line in Westchester, where last week's accident occurred, is 60 mph.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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