Although train travel is not nearly as big in the United States as it is in Europe and Asia, it is clear that trains aren't going away. In fact, when the bullet-train line that carries passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles is completed, California will be the first state in the nation to utilize this type of high-speed rail.
As the project continues through the planning stages, the California High-Speed Rail Authority recently made an important decision. It has announced that whenever the line intersects a road for automobile traffic, it will either tunnel under it or pass over it on an elevated platform. In other words, there will be no "grade" crossings.
This decision was an important one for numerous reasons. First of all, the train is slated to travel at 200 miles per hour. Any ground-level crossing where it intersects with a road would likely require the train to slow down and would also increase the risk of an accident.
But this announcement also highlights an important safety hazard affecting California and nearly every other state. Grade crossings (where cars and trains intersect on the same level) are more dangerous than most people realize. There are just under 251,000 grade crossings in the United States, and in 2013 there were a total of 2,096 train vs. car accidents. Last year, accidents at grade crossings resulted in 239 deaths.
Individual rail crossings can be upgraded to decrease the risk of accidents. But this type of infrastructure improvement is expensive, and most governments (local, state and federal) are either unable or unwilling to spend the money.
When driving through rail crossings, vigilance and focus are crucial. It doesn't matter if the crossing sees little train traffic or heavy train traffic. In fact, lightly traveled crossings can be even more dangerous because drivers are less likely to keep a lookout.
If you regularly encounter grade crossings, please ensure that you slow down, look and listen for trains each and every time you cross.
Source: Insurance Journal, "Replacing Unsafe Train Crossings Deemed Too Expensive," Michael B. Marois, Feb. 26, 2015