Grade Crossing Crashes: What to Do?
I’ve written here before about one of the more serious problems facing the country’s railroads: grade crossing accidents. There are a lot of them … far too many because, with the exception of those that are suicides, every damn one of them could have been avoided.
It’s a big problem and, unfortunately, it’s probably going to get bigger. There are several reasons why these awful incidents occur but, discounting the suicides for the purpose of this exercise, in almost all of the other incidents, drivers ignore the flashing lights and the clanging bells and they drive around the lowered gates into the path of the locomotive … even those hauling relatively slow-moving freights.
Obviously, they think they have enough time and some of the time, they do. A lot of those incidents occur in small towns all across the midwest and the west. Twenty or thirty times a day, the bells start to ring, the lights start flashing and the gate comes down . . . and after a full minute or so, here comes a freight train, rumbling through town at 30 miles an hour.
But once a day, it’s not a slow freight. Once a day, it’s Amtrak—barreling through that same intersection at 70 miles an hour and some impatient driver, assuming it’s a freight and that he’s got plenty of time, pulls out of line, drives around the barrier, and … BOOM!
So how could this bad situation get worse? There are a number of routes around the country where improvements are being made in the track that will permit Amtrak trains to run at 110 miles an hour. Chicago-St, Louis and stretches in Michigan, for example, and there are several other routes where higher speeds are being considered.
The problem is obvious, isn’t it? The higher the train’s speed, the shorter the time from the gate dropping until it reaches the crossing and the shorter the time the impatient driver has to drive around the gate and get safely across. If it’s a Union Pacific freight he makes it; if it’s the Southwest Chief, he doesn’t. And the faster the Chief is traveling, the lower the odds he’ll make it.
The maddening thing is, idiots drive around the gates and get hit by freight trains, too.
Fixing the problem—really fixing the problem—would take massive amounts of money and thousands of lesser-used crossings would still have to be closed. That’s not going to happen.