Nationally, 94 percent of all rail-related fatalities and injuries occur at rail grade crossings or due to trespassing. Sadly, almost all these deaths and injuries are preventable.
Due to our frequent interaction with them, rail grade crossings receive the greatest attention when it comes to public safety. All safety data presented is provided by the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) and includes information on incidents that occurred at public and private rail grade crossings. (Source: Federal Rail Administration (FRA), Office of Safety Analysis Highway-Rail Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention. (2022).)
Public Rail Crossing Incidents
Over the five-year span of 2016 to 2020, a total of 66 safety incidents at rail grade crossings were reported to the FRA. Fifty-four (54) incidents were at public crossings and 12 occurred at private rail grade crossings. Over this period, there was some slight fluctuation in the number of incidents, but overall, the number of rail grade crossing events has remained about the same.
Most incidents (39 percent) have occurred in Butler County. Clermont is the only county in the OKI region that has not experienced any safety incidents at rail grade crossings during the five-year span. It should be noted that the one 2016 crash that involved an incapacitating injury in Boone County occurred at Norfolk Southern crossing #719983X at Maher Road which has since been closed.
Of the combined 66 public and private rail grade crossing incidents, no one railroad company stood out. Regarding the region’s two Class I railroads, CSX had 31 of the incidents occur at its rail grade crossings while Norfolk Southern (NS) had 28. In terms of our regional railroad operators, the Central Railroad of Indiana (CIND) had two incidents and Indiana and Ohio Railway (IORY) had a total of six. Boone and Warren were the only counties that had no incidents occur at private rail grade crossings.
Rail-Related Fatalities and Injuries
FRA reports that rail crossing incidents are the second leading cause of rail-related deaths in America. In the OKI region, the rate of fatalities and injuries at rail grade crossings have remained fairly constant between 2016 and 2020. About 12 percent of all safety incidents at rail grade crossings over the past five years have involved a fatality and 35 percent involved an injury. Kenton is the only OKI county that had four rail grade crossing incidents over the five-year period with none resulting in a fatality or injury.
Crossing Warning Devices
To help prevent crashes from occurring at rail grade crossings, the installation of warning or control devices is required just like roadway intersections have stop signs or traffic signals. Active grade crossings have control devices such as bells, flashing lights and gates, while passive grade crossings have devices such as crossbucks, stop signs and pavement markings.
An examination of the 66 incidents that occurred over the past five years shows that a safety device of some type was in place at all but 18 of the crossing locations. Seventy-three percent (73 percent) of the crossings had some device in place to warn drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists to oncoming trains. Each of the eight fatalities happened at crossings with safety devices in place.
The primary safety devices found at rail grade crossings in the OKI region where incidents have occurred are gates (61 percent of crash locations) and standard flashing lights (59 percent of crash locations). To a lesser extent, other warning or safety devices include cantilevered flashing lights (20 percent), audible warning devices (20 percent), roadway traffic signals (five percent), crossbucks or sign resembling an “X” (five percent), stop signs (three percent), and wig wags or swinging warning signals (1.5 percent).
Given the fact that most incidents occurred at crossings equipped with warning signs and safety devices, the causes for the 66 crashes that transpired between 2016 and 2020 are not too surprising. Ninety-two percent (92 percent) of all crashes can be attributed to the action taken by the driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist. Almost 60 percent of drivers did not stop or went around or through the gate.
Roadway Users Involved
Over 71 percent of rail grade crossing crashes in the region involved a passenger motor vehicle such as a car, van, pick-up truck or motorcycle. Almost 17 percent of crashes involved a pedestrian. The “Other” category includes bicyclists or other forms of non-motorized transport besides walking.
Until now, the discussion on rail safety has been focused on incidences that occurred at rail grade crossings. Nationally, however rail grade crossing incidences are the SECOND leading cause of rail-related deaths. This holds true for the OKI region as well. At the national and regional levels, railroad right-of-way trespassing is the number one cause of rail-related deaths.
Between 2016 and 2020, the total number of trespassing injuries (47) and deaths (16) in the region was double that of rail grade crossing injuries (23) and fatalities (8). Every trespassing incident in the region resulted in injury or death. Clermont is the only OKI county that had no reported trespassing incidences over the five year period.
In the OKI region, the number of trespassing incidents has remained about the same, as has the occurrence of injuries and fatalities ranging between seven to 12 people injured and two to four people killed each year. Although Butler, Hamilton and Kenton counties share the same number of trespassers injured, Butler County leads the region in the number of trespassers killed.
Although trespassing is the leading cause of rail-related deaths, the vast majority of these events are preventable. The physical actions of the trespassers involved in these events range from climbing over or on the rail and walking or running in the railroad right-of-way, to just sitting, lying or standing on the rails. Trespasser ages ranged from four to 76. The age of the greatest number of trespassers (four) was 16. FRA records do not indicate if drugs or alcohol were involved.
Predicting Rail Grade Crossing Safety
The FRA makes available the Web Accident Prediction System (WBAPS) which calculates an accident prediction value for every public rail grade crossing in the country. The accident prediction value is the probability that a collision between a train and a roadway user will occur at the crossing within a year. The value is based on the crossing’s physical and operating characteristics and five years of crash data. The larger the accident prediction value, the greater the possibility for the crossing to exhibit hazardous conditions.
The accident prediction value does not mean that a crossing is dangerous. It merely provides an indication that given the data, a crossing may possibly be more hazardous than another. The WBAPS is one of many ways that FRA, the railroads, public and private entities determine a crossing may need an improvement to increase safety. The accident prediction value is a good start to identifying crossings for potential closer examination.
OKI reviewed the accident prediction values for the over 400 public rail grade crossings in the region to determine the top 10 crossings where a future collision is most likely to occur. Every crossing in the top 10 is located in Butler or Hamilton counties. Therefore, this regional top 10 list also serves as our top 10 crossings list for OKI’s Ohio member counties.
Since the region’s top 10 only included Ohio counties and rail crossing safety funding is often available from member states, two additional top 10 lists are provided – one for OKI’s three Northern Kentucky member counties and one for Dearborn County, Indiana. The accident prediction values for the Kentucky and Indiana crossings are significantly lower than the top 10 regional crossings. The findings show that Kenton County has six of the Kentucky top 10 crossings.
Two crossings were removed from the Northern Kentucky top 10 list. The first was the Norfolk Southern crossing #719983X in Union in Boone County at Maher Road. This crossing has an Accident Prediction Value of 0.07848 which had it in ranked as the first crossing in the list. However, this crossing has been closed permanently and poses no further safety concerns.
The second crossing removed from the Northern Kentucky list was another Norfolk Southern crossing #729013U in Walton in Boone County at Shorland Drive which was the ninth ranked crossing with an Accident Prediction Value of 0.2318. This crossing is just a few feet east of US 25 (Dixie Highway) and just north of KY 338 (Richwood Road). In 2018, Boone County was awarded an almost $67.5 million dollar Nationally Significant Multimodal Freight & Highway Projects (INFRA) federal grant. Part of the grant covers the I-71/75 interchange at KY 338 and extends eastward from the interstate – making several improvements. One of these improvements is the elimination of the Shorland Drive public rail grade crossing. The crossing will be replaced with an overpass railroad bridge. The planned completion date for the project is September 2023. With the elimination of the crossing, it will pose no further safety concerns.