Train Accidents at Highway Crossings Increasing Despite Added Safety Measures

Over the last two decades, train accidents per mile continually decreased with improved safety measures and overall improved performance of train lines.

But since 2012, highway-rail accidents—those that occur where highways cross train lines—increased almost 50 percent since 2009 according to numbers from the Department of Transportation (DOT).

The growing number of highway-rail accidents has driven the accident rate for passenger trains by almost the same amount.

In 2007 testimony to the Senate, executives from DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) noted that “highway-rail grade crossing accidents are the second-leading category of fatalities” associated with railroading and pushed for additional safety investment.

Questions About Positive Train Control

While highway-rail crossing accidents are growing, rail safety investment has been directed at excess speed.

As part of the 2008 Railway Safety Improvement Act, train lines were instructed to start implementing positive train control (PTC)—a system that automatically controls train speed on certain tracks.

Not all lines have implemented PTC and some operators have scoffed at the high costs and necessity of the technology.

PTC was estimated to cost in excess of $14 billion according to the FRA and the safety issues it was intended to fix are only responsible for 2 percent of all accidents according to a 2018 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.

According to the CRS report, “the majority of these 2,000 incidents occur in rail yards and are generally less severe than PTC-preventable incidents.”

In the U.S., 66 percent of freight lines and only 2 percent of passenger lines have implemented PTC as of July 2018.

Canada has not implemented PTC at all and has not seen the same increase in highway-rail crossings. But Canadian rail accident-rates has grown substantially since 2012 driven by accidents related to excessive speed.

Gerald Gauthier, ex-acting president of the Railway Association of Canada (RAC), previously called PTC technology “costly” and “unproven.”