Pedestrians, cyclists need consistency at rail crossings

Sign used by the New Jersey Dept. of Transportation

Sign used by the New Jersey Dept. of Transportation

The risk of pedestrian and bicycle accidents at railroad grade crossings would decrease with sustained  enforcement and education by local governments, along with consistency in design standards for warning devices, according to a study by the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities at highway-rail and pathway-rail crossings have remained constant over the past ten years, in contrast to a marked decrease in vehicle collisions with trains,” said P.S. Sriraj, director of UIC’s Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative. Sriraj led the study with Paul Metaxatos, research assistant professor.

“Education and enforcement would convince pedestrians and cyclists that it is both dangerous and illegal to cross railroad tracks while signals are activated, or to cross anywhere but at designated crossings,” Metaxatos said.

The researchers’ review of signage and electronic warning devices nationwide showed “a distinct lack of consistency in standards to analyze/quantify pedestrian risk and design effective treatment.” They found that signals at many crossings did not comply with professional standards.

Criteria for the choice of devices at each grade crossing include pedestrian volumes, weather, train speeds, train volumes, and surrounding land uses, but few methodologies allow for assessing tradeoffs among those factors, the researchers wrote. States like California, with substantial passenger, commuter and freight rail operations, are developing guidelines for safety improvements.

Compliant warning signs in use include pavement markings, audible tones, verbal messages, vibrating surfaces, fencing, gates, flashing lights, and “second train coming” electronic warning signs. Survey respondents paid the most attention to pedestrian gates, which were the most frequently suggested signal improvement.

The study found that several other factors affect crossing safety:

Age: All ages noticed train-activated devices more often than passive signs, but older users more often noticed passive signs.

Gender: Women survey respondents “appeared to be more safety-conscious than men,” the researchers wrote. Men under 21 were the only group that reported crossing against activated warning signals.

Regular use: Pedestrians and cyclists who use grade crossings more often were less likely to cross illegally.

Distractions: Talking on a cell phone, pushing a stroller, or listening to music on headphones can limit awareness when approaching a crossing. Awareness also diminishes with age.

Crossing in groups: Groups of pedestrians and cyclists, as at train stations, often exhibit “platoon behavior,” with individuals following the crowd rather than checking for signals on their own. This can be especially dangerous when a second train is coming from the opposite direction, the researchers noted.

Quiet zones: In communities where local authorities have established quiet zones, train horns are restricted or banned, rendering warnings less effective for distracted pedestrians.

Funding for improvements: The “vast majority” of funding for rail crossing safety improvements is allocated to rail-highway crossings. Little funding is earmarked for pedestrian crossings.

The research team surveyed pedestrians at 10 “hot spots” in Chicago and collar counties; monitored the actions of non-motorized users through video surveillance; surveyed state regulatory agencies and industry professionals; and reviewed published studies on rail crossing safety.

The study, “Pedestrian/Bicyclist Warning Devices and Signs at Highway-Rail and Pathway-Rail Grade Crossings,” was funded by the Illinois Center for Transportation and Canadian National Railway.

The Urban Transportation Center, part of the UIC College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, is dedicated to research, education and technical assistance on urban transportation planning, policy, operations, and management.

UIC ranks among the nation’s leading research universities and is Chicago’s largest university, with 27,500 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state’s major public medical center.

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