- The Federal Transit Administration is working to raise awareness about transit rail safety in street-crossing and street-running environments. The agency held a webinar on Sept. 21 to discuss recent research and promote its transit safety resources webpage.
- Every three hours in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train, often resulting in deaths and injuries. According to University of South Florida research highlighted at the FTA webinar, trespassers account for 15% of fatalities along transit rail lines, and suicides make up 40% of deaths.
- The FTA found that incidents at street crossings were 10 times greater than at conventional railroad grade crossings and that transit agencies have more street intersections than conventional railroads, which are difficult to protect.
Many light rail trains and streetcars run in the street or within an adjacent right-of-way. Often, traffic signals are the only warning to drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. Nineteen people died in rail transit grade crossing incidents in 2022 and 133 more were injured, according to FTA data. Street crossings, at which a majority of these tragedies occur, are places where trains enter or cross a street, often without crossing gates or lighted “Railroad Crossing” signs to warn motorists.
“The greatest number of train to [privately-owned vehicle] collisions are at traffic signals,” said Elliott Shepherd, chief of the program operations division in the FTA’s office of transit safety and oversight, speaking at the Sept. 21 webinar. Three-quarters of such collisions occur where traffic signals are the primary control device.
Pedestrians are also in danger, especially when they are in a hurry, can’t see an approaching train or see others crossing ahead of them. People running to catch a train or who have just disembarked can also put themselves in danger by crossing the tracks. “Pedestrian treatments are very important, particularly near stations, because we are generating a lot of pedestrian traffic by the fact of our transit operation being there,” said Duane Otter, principal engineer at MxV Rail, a subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads, at last week’s webinar.
However, according to a May 2022 FTA report, “despite the considerable number of documents available, there is little guidance specific to light rail transit, particularly relating to the issues and challenges of street intersection crossings.”
Some local transportation authorities have taken steps to address safety issues at intersections where rail transit and streets meet. As the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority began growing a network of light rail lines, a spate of vehicle collisions made headlines. In one 12-month period from 2014 to 2015, at least 18 incidents involving cars and trains took place, according to the Los Angeles Times.
LA Metro, as the transit agency is also called, is now partnering with local communities to enhance pedestrian and bicycle safety around stations, including signal timing, crosswalks, bike lanes and curb bulb-outs. The transit agency is also working with local law enforcement agencies on photo enforcement cameras as a deterrent to disobeying traffic signals. LA Metro has installed photo enforcement cameras on light rail lines and busways that operate at street level.
Other recommendations developed by the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research include flashing lights and warning bells at train stations to alert people of coming trains, technology to detect trespassers and collaborating with transit police or local law enforcement agencies to respond to trespassing. MxV Rail also recommended swing gates, pavement treatments, fencing and pedestrian signage.
“Every week, every one of these crashes or incidents that occur, we often boil down to a number, but we have to remember that each of those represents a person and a person’s family that is affected by this,” Shepherd said. “And all of these are preventable, so we’re hoping that we can do as much as we can in this area to improve safety.”