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Future Rail Safety

At-Grade Crossings

Seventy percent of all rail crossings in the OKI region are at-grade with public or private roadways. Rail grade crossings are a major safety concern for railroads.

OKI’s review of 66 rail-related incidents (2016- 2020) showed that a safety device was in place at all but 18 crossing locations. That equates to 73% of the crash crossing locations as having had some type of warning device announcing oncoming trains to drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

Furthermore, OKI found that all eight of the rail-related fatalities in this same span were also at grade crossings with safety devices. These historical crash records, combined with OKI’s forecast for growth in road and rail traffic volumes, suggests that rail crossing incidences will likely increase in the years to follow.

Railroad companies have looked for opportunities to eliminate grade crossings for the past several years. This desire is not likely to subside in the future as it is the only means of achieving a level of zero tolerance for the loss of life or property at rail grade crossings.

The push to improve passive grade crossings to active ones (static warning devices to actuated and physical crossing barriers) is a shared goal by railroads and roadway owners. However, funding remains a challenge. These safety measures would entail the construction of improved and expanded use of crossing control devices, such as bells, flashing lights, and gates at more than 400 public grade crossings in the OKI region.

The costs of crossing improvements continue to rise as the cost of materials rises. However, with the passing of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), more public money is becoming available to improve or eliminate crossings.

Discretionary grant funding though the IIJA provides money specifically for the improvement or removal of grade crossings to improve rail freight mobility and safety. In 2022, several federal grant applications were submitted to improve grade crossings in the OKI region. This included locations in the cities of Fairfield and Hamilton in Butler County, along CSX’s and Norfolk Southern’s (NS) major north-south corridors, which link the region to Chicago and the nationwide rail network. Local, state, federal and private railroad funding are necessary to aid in future rail safety and capacity improvements.

Use of Technology to Improve Rail Crossing Safety

For the past few decades, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) has supported research into new technologies for improving grade crossing safety. One research example is the use of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which can use dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) and Differential Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems, as well as video detection and monitoring to detect crossing blockages. The FRA-developed technology is called Intelligent Crossing Assessment and Traffic Sharing System (i-CATSS). This technology has been shown to provide first responders with crossing blockages in real-time, so that they can modify their emergency routes and save valuable time for the safety of human life and property. FRA’s analysis has also identified a means of using data to predict future crossing blockages to provide proactive communication. 

(Source: Federal Railroad Administration. Intelligent Crossing Assessment and Traffic Sharing System (i-CATSS). Technical Reports Document Series. Report Number: DOT/FRA/ORD-22/15. April 2022).

Grade Crossing Apps & Smart Crossings

In working with federal regulators and private technology providers, railroads have developed technological solutions to improve safety at grade crossings. For example, railroads have partnered with Waze to develop a safety feature that alerts app users to upcoming grade crossings and develop smart crossings that know how fast a train is approaching.


Trespassing remains the number-one safety concern for railroads. In 2022, FRA increased its funding for the Railroad Trespassing Enforcement and Suicide Prevention Grant Programs. The city of Middletown in Butler County received a $120,000 grant to improve railroad property safety at high trespass locations within its city limits. This was done by using trespassing data elements to direct enforcement efforts. Using Geographic Information System (GIS) spatial analysis to determine railroad trespassing hot spots, the city police department identified several homeless encampments, found along the railroad right of ways and that contribute to the risk of trespassing. With this grant, the Middletown Police Department will develop two officer teams to patrol hot spot trespassing areas, in collaboration with the CSX Police Department. Results as to whether the patrols have an impact on safety will be documented. This information could be used to inform other future trespassing safety measures across the OKI region.

Multiple railroad tracks blocked by sideways rail cars while endless rows of rail cars are parked in the background.

2011 Queensgate Yard Train Derailment
Source: Reginald Victor. City of Cincinnati. (2011).

Positive Train Control

Positive Train Control (PTC) systems are designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, movements into established work zones, and movements of trains if switches are left in the wrong position. PTC is in operation from Cincinnati to Columbus and Dayton, along both CSX and NS lines. Since PTC is mandatory for passenger rail deployment along existing rail freight corridors, increased adoption throughout the OKI region will largely depend on the future status of improved passenger rail service to and from Cincinnati. The railroads submit annual and quarterly reports to the FRA documenting their progress in implementing PTC.

FRA reports that much has been learned through the approval and implementation of PTC, which will aid in the approval of future regulations, which, in turn, will, enable adoption of new technologies designed to improve rail safety. FRA is balancing technological innovations through a systems approach by looking at the environments in which they operate. This is being done by suspending certain regulations for the purpose of testing and evaluating the effectiveness of new technologies, or granting a waiver of compliance to a mature technology to collect the level of data needed to ensure acceptable levels of hazard avoidance. With safety as their number one goal, FRA is a willing and necessary partner for the adoption of future rail innovations.

Safety Threats from Aging Railroad Infrastructure

Railroads have the responsibility for maintaining and upgrading their own infrastructure. Class I railroads have more resources than short line and regional railroads. This enables them to follow regular maintenance schedules to replace rail, railroad ties and ballast along their system, as well as rail crossings and associated active and passive warning systems. Rail lines that handle less traffic require less maintenance, due to fewer rail cars and associated wear. These lines are “downgraded,” meaning they operate at lower speeds to reduce the probability of safety issues, such as derailments and conflicts at rail crossings.

Short line and regional railroads by nature have less rail volumes and less capital for rail maintenance. These rail lines operate at lower speeds and serve fewer customers. Funds set aside for maintenance make up a larger portion of the operators’ budgets; and maintenance activities focus on rail operations and safety at rail crossings. Failure of all railroads to properly invest in aging rail infrastructure would result in decreased safety of workers and the general public. A stable maintenance plan and the funding to support it is a challenge, especially for the OKI region’s short line rail companies.

A large truck and machine sit atop railroad track with men walking around.

Rail Replacement Project to Ensure Safe Freight Movements
Source: Norfolk Southern Railroad. (May 2020).

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