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FHWA Highway Safety Programs



The highway-rail grade crossing is unique in that it constitutes the intersection of two transportation modes which differ in both the physical characteristics of their traveled ways and their operations.

Railroad transportation in the United States had its beginning during the 1830s and became a major factor in accelerating the great westward expansion of the country by providing a reliable, economical, and rapid method of transportation. Today, railroads are major movers of coal, ores, minerals, grains, and other farm products; chemicals and allied products; food and kindred products; lumber and other forest products; motor vehicles and equipment; and other bulk materials and products.

In addition, railroads contribute to the movement of non-bulk intermodal freight, which also moves by water and highway during the journey from origin to destination. Finally, although few privately-operated passenger services operate on Class I railroads, publicly-funded long distance, corridor, and commuter services as well as light-rail transit (LRT) lines all may operate through grade crossings.

The number of railroad line miles grew until a peak was reached in 1920, when 252,845 miles of railroad line were in service. Line Miles are defined as the actual length of the corridor within which the track is located. Track miles are defined as the total centerline length of mainline trackage in a corridor (Railroad Facts, 2017).(71) The number of railroad line miles and track miles has been decreasing since the 1930s, as shown in Table A-1.

Highway-rail grade crossings became more of a concern with the advent of the automobile in the early 1900s. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) increased from 47.6 billion in 1920 to approximately 3.2 trillion by 2016. US lane miles totaled approximately 8.7 million by 2016.(72)

The number of highway-rail grade crossings grew with the increase in highway miles. In many cities and towns, the grid method of laying out streets was utilized, particularly in the Midwest and west. A crossing over the railroad was often provided for every street, resulting in about 10 crossings per mile. As of July 2015, there are 211,631 highway-rail crossings, 58.5 percent are public, 40.4 percent are private, and 2 percent are pedestrian.(73)

Crossings are divided into categories. Public crossings are those on highways under the jurisdiction of, and maintained by, a public authority and open to the traveling public. In 2017, there were 164,604 public crossings, of which 128,878 were at grade and 35,726 were grade separated. Private crossings are those on roadways privately owned and utilized only by the landowner or tenant. There were 83,415 private crossings in 2017. Pedestrian crossings are those used solely by pedestrians. There were 4,376 pedestrian crossings in 2017.(74) Please note that since the Inventory form revision in 2015, crossings can now be marked as public or private and highway or pedestrian, rather than public, private or pedestrian.

Table A-1. Class 1 Railroad Line Miles and Track Miles

Year Line miles Track miles
1929 229,530 381,417
1939 220,915 364,174
1947 214,486 355,227
1955 211,459 350,217
1960 207,334 340,779
1970 196,479 319,092
1980 164,822 270,074
1990 119,758 200,074
2000 99,250 168,535
2002 100,125 170,048
2003 99,126 169,069
2004 97,662 167,312
2005 95,830 164,291
2006 94,942 162,056
2007 94,440 161,114
2008 94,209 160,734
2009 94,048 160,781
2010 95,700 161,926
2011 95,514 162,393
2012 95,391 162,306
2013 95,235 161,980
2014 94,372 161,240
2015 93,628 160,692
2016 93,339 160,141

Source: Railroad Facts, page 47, Washington, DC, Association of American Railroads, 2017..

Sixty percent, or 77,214, of public at-grade crossings were in rural areas, compared to 50,195 in urban areas. For both urban and rural areas, most crossings are located on local roads, as depicted in Table A-2. Twenty-two percent of public at-grade crossings are located on federal- aid highways, as shown in Table A-3.

Table A-2. Public At-Grade Crossings by Functional Classifications, 2017

Functional Classification Number
Interstate* 69
Other principal arterial 1,095
Minor arterial 3,200
Major collector 10,871
Minor collector 7,367
Local 54,570
Other freeways and expressways 23
Not reported 19
Total–Rural 77,214
Interstate* 129
Other principal arterial 4,711
Minor arterial 9,126
Major Collector 10,158
Minor Collector 282
Local 25,477
Other freeways and expressways 214
Not reported 98
Total–Urban 50,195
Total not reported as Rural or Urban 1,469
Grand Total 128,878

*Note: Crossings classified as "Interstate" are typically located on ramps. Source: Unpublished data from Federal Railroad Administration.

Table A-3. Public At-Grade Crossing by Highway System, 2017

Highway System Number
Interstate Highway System 151
Federal-aid, not National Highway System 28,001
Non-federal-aid 93,830
Other National Highway System 4,778
Not reported 2,118
Total 128,878

*Note: Crossings classified as "Interstate" are typically located on ramps. Source: Unpublished data from Federal Railroad Administration.


Safety and Operations at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings

National statistics on crossing collisions have been kept since the early 1900s resulting from the requirements of the Accident Reports Act of 1910. The act required rail carriers to submit reports of collisions involving railroad personnel and railroad equipment, including those that occurred at crossings. Since this time, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) Office of Railroad Safety developed the FRA Guide for Preparing Accident/Incident Reports, which includes a section on reporting thresholds for accidents/incidents. The reporting threshold is updated annually, so users should check the latest information regarding these thresholds. This information can be accessed online at this link: ( Figure A-1 shows data for the past 10 years.

Figure A-1. Railroad Crossing deaths, injuries, and incidents from 2008–2017 - This figure provides a detailed graph of railroad crossing deaths, injuries, and incidents from 2008 to 2017. The legend in the upper right hand corner shows a solid green line for Incidents at Railroad Crossings, dashed orange line for Highway-rail injuries, and blue dotted line for Highway-rail deaths. The top green solid line on the graph measures the incidents at railroad crossings. In 2008, there was 2,429 railroad crossin

Figure A-1. Railroad Crossing deaths, injuries, and incidents from 2008-2017

Source: USDOT FRA, Safety Data Statistic of Railroad Crossing deaths, injuries, & incidents from 2008-2017. Data from Report 1.12.

These reporting requirements remained essentially the same until 1975, when the FRA redefined the threshold for a reportable highway-rail grade crossing collision. Under the new guidelines, any impact "between railroad on-track equipment and an automobile, bus, truck, motorcycle, bicycle, farm vehicle, pedestrian or other highway user at a rail-highway crossing" was to be reported.(75)

Table A-4 gives the number of fatalities occurring at public highway-rail grade crossings from 1920 to 2017. Also, shown separately, are fatalities resulting from collisions involving motor vehicles. Table A-5 provides data on the number of collisions, injuries, and fatalities at public highway-rail grade crossings for the period from 1975 to 2017. Collisions and injuries from 1920 to 1974 are not provided because not all collisions and injuries were required to be reported during those years.

The variation in the number of motor vehicle fatalities appears to be related to various occurrences over the years. From 1920 to 1930, railroad expenditures for the construction of grade separations and crossing active traffic control devices were extensive. During the early four-year period of the depression, railroad expenditures for crossing improvements lagged, and the number of motor vehicle fatalities increased. Starting in 1935, some special federal programs were initiated to improve crossing safety, and the number of motor vehicle fatalities began to decrease. During the wartime 1940s, crossing improvement work was reduced, and the number of motor vehicle fatalities remained constant. Since 1946, federal aid has increased.

During the period between 1960 and 1967, the number of fatalities increased despite continual federal funding for grade separations and crossing traffic control device improvements. A national concern for crossing safety developed, as witnessed by national conferences to address the increase in casualties. The U.S. Congress responded by establishing a categorical funding program for crossing safety improvements in the 1973 Highway Act. This categorical safety program was extended in the 1976 Highway Act and the 1978 and 1982 Surface Transportation Acts. The result of this safety program and other emphases on crossing safety is demonstrated in Table A-4, which shows the dramatic reduction in the number of fatalities involving motor vehicles.

Approximately 6.3 million motor vehicle traffic collisions occurred in 2015. Crossing collisions accounted for less than 0.05 percent of all motor vehicle collisions on roads; however, the severity of crossing collisions demands special attention. In 2015, there were 153 motor vehicle fatalities at crossings and a total of 32,539 motor vehicle fatalities. Therefore, crossing fatalities accounted for 0.5 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities. 0.5 percent of vehicle collisions resulted in a fatality, but 8 percent of crossing collisions resulted in a fatality.(76,77) In 2017, 821 fatal incidents occurred involving rail. A large portion of these fatalities involved trespassers.(78)

In addition to the possibility of a collision between a train and a highway user, a highway-rail grade crossing presents the possibility of a collision that does not involve a train. Non-train collisions include collisions in which a vehicle that has stopped at a crossing is hit from the rear; collisions with fixed objects such as signal equipment or signs; and non-collision accidents in which a driver loses control of the vehicle.

Most collisions with trains involve mainline freight operations, as shown in Table A-6.

Table A-4. Fatalities at Public Crossings, 1920-2017

Year All Fatalities Motor Vehicle Fatalities
1920 1,791 1,273
1921 1,705 1,262
1922 1,810 1,359
1923 2,268 1,759
1924 2,149 1,688
1925 2,206 1,784
1926 2,491 2,062
1927 2,371 1,974
1928 2,568 2,165
1929 2,485 2,085
1930 2,020 1,695
1931 1,811 1,580
1932 1,525 1,310
1933 1,511 1,305
1934 1,554 1,320
1935 1,680 1,445
1936 1,786 1,526
1937 1,875 1,613
1938 1,517 1,311
1939 1,398 1,197
1940 1,808 1,588
1941 1,931 1,691
1942 1,970 1,635
1943 1,732 1,396
1944 1,840 54
1945 1,903 1,591
1946 1,851 1,575
1947 1,790 1,536
1948 1,612 1,379
1949 1,507 1,323
1950 1,576 1,410
1951 1,578 1,407
1952 1,407 1,257
1953 1,494 1,328
1954 1,303 1,161
1955 1,446 1,322
1956 1,338 1,210
1957 1,371 1,222
1958 1,271 1,141
1959 1,203 1,073
1960 1,364 1,261
1961 1,291 1,173
1962 1,241 1,132
1963 1,302 1,217
1964 1,543 1,432
1965 1,534 1,434
1966 1,780 1,657
1967 1,632 1,520
1968 1,546 1,448
1969 1,490 1,381
1970 1,440 1,362
1971 1,356 1,267
1972 1,260 1,190
1973 1,185 1,077
1974 1,220 1,128
1975 888 786
1976 1,066 978
1977 944 846
1978 1,018 926
1979 834 727
1980 788 708
1981 697 623
1982 580 526
1983 542 483
1984 610 543
1985 537 480
1986 578 507
1987 598 533
1988 652 594
1989 757 682
1990 648 568
1991 565 497
1992 536 466
1993 584 517
1994 572 501
1995 524 455
1996 449 377
1997 419 378
1998 385 325
1999 363 309
2000 369 306
2001 386 315
2002 316 271
2003 300 249
2004 333 256
2005 329 258
2006 325 267
2007 299 227
2008 266 199
2009 226 161
2010 226 136
2011 211 138
2012 199 135
2013 207 141
2014 235 144
2015 208 127
2016 227 129
2017 241 139

Source: Data from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Table A-5. Collisions, Fatalities, and Injuries at Public Crossings, 1975-2017

Year Collisions Fatalities Injuries
1975 11,409 888 3,736
1976 12,374 1,066 4,535
1977 12,595 944 4,646
1978 12,667 1,018 4,260
1979 11,777 834 4,172
1980 9,926 788 3,662
1981 8,698 697 3,121
1982 7,324 580 2,508
1983 6,691 542 2,467
1984 6,798 610 2,723
1985 6,497 537 2,508
1986 5,965 578 2,328
1987 5,891 598 2,313
1988 6,027 652 2,417
1989 5,980 757 2,683
1990 5,237 648 2,254
1991 4,864 565 1,923
1992 4,478 536 1,830
1993 4,480 584 1,744
1994 4,523 572 1,829
1995 4,168 524 1,754
1996 3,799 449 1,486
1997 3,416 419 1,370
1998 3,097 385 1,179
1999 3,110 363 1,264
2000 3,113 369 1,079
2001 2,843 386 1,038
2002 2,713 316 866
2003 2,606 300 921
2004 2,663 333 957
2005 2,643 329 921
2006 2,517 325 933
2007 2,354 299 881
2008 2,081 266 907
2009 1,644 226 644
2010 1,771 226 782
2011 1,789 211 885
2012 1,700 199 819
2013 1,781 207 848
2014 1,969 235 736
2015 1,783 208 944
2016 1,739 227 727
2017 1,833 241 734

Source: Federal Railroad Administration Safety Data website (

Table A-6. Collisions at Public Crossings Involving Motor Vehicles by Type of Train, 2004.

Type of train Collisions
Freight 1,199
Passenger/commuter 179
Yard switching 84
Other* 155
Total 1,617

* Note: "Other" includes work trains, light locomotives, single car, short group of cars being switched, maintenance/inspection car, and special maintenance-of-way equipment.

Source: Unpublished data from Federal Railroad Administration.

Crossing Improvement Funding Programs

The first authorization of federal funds for highway construction occurred in 1912 when Congress allocated $500,000 for an experimental rural post road program. The Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916 provided federal funds to the States for the construction of rural post roads. These funds could be expended for safety improvements at highway-rail grade crossings, as well as for other highway construction. The States had to match the federal funds on a 50-50 basis and often required railroads to pay the State's 50 percent share or more.

Since then, the program has gone through various revisions. The remainder of this section will focus on how the current program has been more recently shaped. The Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) of 1987 established Section 130 of Chapter 23 of the United States Code, giving the Federal-Aid Rail-Highway Grade Crossing Safety Program permanent status under the law for the first time.(79)

In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). This act established the National Highway System (NHS) and Surface Transportation Program (STP). The NHS consists of the interstate system and other highways of national significance, plus certain intermodal connections; the STP covers all other public roads and streets.

Section 1007(d)(1) of ISTEA required that 10 percent of each State's STP funds be set aside for safety improvements under Sections 130 and 152 (Hazard Elimination) of Title 23. It further required that the State reserve in each fiscal year an amount not less than the amount apportioned in each program for fiscal year 1991. If the total set aside was more than the 1991 total for these programs, the surplus was to be used for safety, but may be used for either program; if the total is less than the total 1991 apportionment, the safety set-aside funds were to be used proportionately for each program. ISTEA, therefore, provided for the continuation of categorical safety programs.(80)

The ISTEA removed the potential to fund railroad grade separations at 100 percent, or G-funded projects as referred to at that time. It also reduced the percentage of a State's federal funds that could be used for G-funded work from 25 percent, which had been in effect for many years, to 10 percent.

Section 1021(c) of ISTEA permitted an increased federal share on certain types of safety projects, including traffic control signalization; pavement marking; commuter carpooling and vanpooling; or installation of traffic signs, traffic lights, guardrails, impact attenuators, concrete barrier end treatments, breakaway utility poles, or priority control systems for emergency vehicles at signalized intersections. FHWA determined that railroad grade crossing signals are included in the category "traffic control signalization."

In 1995, Congress passed the NHS Designation Act, which included a provision that made any activities associated with the closure of a highway-railroad grade crossing eligible for 100 percent federal funding. This increased federal share was discontinued with the subsequent passage of Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act–A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).

Congress enacted the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1997. This act extended the funding arrangements (safety set-asides and other provisions) that had been established in ISTEA and the NHS Designation Act.

In the summer of 2005, Congress passed the SAFETEA-LU, which was signed into law by the President on August 10, 2005. The SAFETEA-LU requires that each State develop a Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), which addresses engineering, management, education, enforcement, and emergency service elements of highway safety as key factors in evaluating highway safety projects. Highway-rail grade crossing safety may be considered part of the SHSP.

The SAFETEA-LU created the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), elevating it to a new core federal-aid funding program beginning in fiscal year 2006, with the aim of achieving a significant reduction in traffic fatalities and serious injuries on all public roads. This new program replaced the 10 percent safety set-aside program element of the STP established under ISTEA. It also restored categorical funding for each of the highway safety construction programs. SAFETEA-LU continued the Section 130 program as a set-aside under the new HSIP and established that the federal share payable on any Section 130-funded project shall be 90 percent. A total of $220 million in highway-railroad crossing safety funds was apportioned among the States for fiscal years 2006 through 2009. Half of these funds were apportioned among the States according to the formula for apportionment of STP funding; the other half were apportioned according to the number of public highway-rail crossings in each State. To aid in the implementation of the new program, FHWA published fact sheets on the new HSIP and the Rail-Highway Crossing provisions.(80)

The SAFETEA-LU continued the requirement that a State spend a minimum of 50 percent of its apportionment for the installation of protective devices at railway-highway crossings. The remaining funds could be spent for other types of improvements as defined in Section 130, including for installation of protective devices at railway-highway crossings. At a minimum, each State was to receive of one-half percent of the total program funding. The SAFETEA-LU also contained a provision to use up to 2 percent of the funds apportioned to a State for compilation and analysis of data for the required annual report to the Secretary on the progress being made to implement the railway-highway crossings program. It also contained a Special Rule under 23 U.S.C. 130(e) that if a State could demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary it had met all of its needs for installation of protective devices at railway-highway crossings, funds could be used for other highway safety improvement purposes.(81)

The program further required each State to conduct and systematically maintain a survey of all highways to identify those railroad crossings that may require separation, relocation, or protective devices, and established a schedule of projects for this purpose. At a minimum, this schedule was to provide signs for all railway-highway crossings (23 U.S.C. 130(d)).(81) Through the HSIP planning process, each State was required to incorporate analyzing safety data to develop a Rail-Highway Crossings Program that (A) considered the relative risk of rail crossings based on a hazard index formula; (B) includes on-site inspection; and (C) resulted in a program of safety improvement projects with special emphasis on providing standard signing and marking at all rail crossings (23 CFR 924.9(a)(4)(ii)).(82)

After several continuing resolutions extended SAFETEA-LU, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act passed in July 2012 continuing funding of the Section 130 Railway-Highway Crossings Program at $220 million per year through 2014 with minimal changes.

The Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, passed in late 2015, authorized $225 million starting in fiscal year 2016 and increasing by an additional $5 million each year through fiscal year 2020.(83) In addition, the 2016 Department of Transportation (DOT) Appropriations Act raised the Section 130 set-aside for fiscal year 2016 to $350 million. The FAST Act also continues all prior program eligibilities in addition to extending eligibility to include the relocation of highways to eliminate railway-highway grade crossings and projects at crossings to eliminate hazards posed by blocked crossings due to idling trains. Apart from the new authorized amounts and eligibility described herein, the FAST Act makes no changes to the Section 130 Railway-Highway Crossings Program.

Additional information can be found online at

In summary, there are three sources of federal funding for construction of highway-rail grade crossing safety improvements:

  • The State's normal federal-aid highway funding may be used. This may include Bridge Replacement, NHS, or STP funding
  • Section 130 set-aside funds may be used
  • Funding from other safety programs, such as other HSIP funds, may be used if such use is consistent with the State's SHSP and the project meets HSIP program eligibility requirements

Activities eligible for the use of Section 130 safety funds are as follows:

  • Crossing consolidations (including the funding of incentive payments up to $7,500 to local jurisdictions for crossing closures if matched by the railroad)
  • Projects that eliminate hazards at railway-highway crossings
  • Separation or protection of grades at crossings
  • Reconstruction of existing railroad grade crossing structures
  • Relocation of highways to eliminate grade crossings
  • Projects at grade crossings to eliminate hazards posed by blocked grade crossings due to idling trains
  • Signage at crossings
  • Pavement marking at crossings
  • Illumination at crossings
  • Signals at crossings, including interconnection and preemption
  • Improved crossing surfaces
  • Sight distance or geometric improvements at crossings
  • Data analysis in support of annual reporting requirements (up to 2 percent of apportionment)

The purpose of Section 130 funds is for the elimination of hazards at railway-highway crossings and therefore are not eligible for new crossings or quiet zones to address noise abatement. Many States have been active in crossing improvement programs for decades. States have been responsible for initiating and implementing projects under the various federal programs. In the past, States have required the railroad or the local government to provide the funds needed to match the federal contribution. States may utilize State funds for crossing improvements and to provide the 10 percent match requirement. In addition to financing costs directly associated with the improvement of highway-rail grade crossings, all States contribute incidentally to crossing components. In general, for crossings located on the State highway system, States provide for the construction and maintenance of the roadway approaches and for signs, markings, and other traffic control devices not located on the railroad right of way. Typically, these include advance warning signs and pavement markings.

Local governments have contributed to highway-rail grade crossing safety improvements by providing the matching funds for improvement projects constructed under Section 130 programs. Localities have also contributed for decades through the construction and maintenance of street approaches to crossings and the signs and pavement markings in advance of the crossings. Some cities and counties conduct traffic engineering and safety studies at specific crossing locations.

Although public agencies have established funding programs for crossing elimination and improvements, the railroads have continued to contribute as well. In some cases, the railroad may pay all, or a part of, the required matching share of a project, or the railroad may contribute "in-kind" by way of supplying materials, providing for flagging services, or constructing or signing a detour route during construction of an improvement. Railroads may also contribute through their track and crossing surface maintenance programs or through vegetation or right-of-way (ROW) clearance programs to improve sight distances at crossings. Some railroads make direct cash contributions to local jurisdictions for crossing consolidations or closures.


Fundamental Issues of Highway-Rail Crossings

An issue as old as the grade crossing safety problem is the question of who should provide and pay for traffic control devices at highway-rail grade crossings.

During the years between 1850 and 1890, tremendous growth in population followed the railroads west. Consequently, there was a need for new highways and streets, practically all of which crossed the railroads at grade. In most cases, the responsibility for these crossings automatically fell upon the railroads. There were occasional collisions at crossings, but they usually were not as serious as those occurring today.

One early collision, involving a train and a wagon in Lima, Indiana, resulted in a suit that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877. In Continental Improvement Co. v. Stead, the Supreme Court had to decide who was responsible for the damages incurred. In its decision, the Supreme Court said that the duties, rights, and obligations of a railroad company and a traveler on the highway at the public crossing were "mutual and reciprocal." It also said that the train had the right of way at over crossings because of its "character," "momentum," and the "requirements of public travel by means thereof." The railroad, however, was bound to give reasonable and timely warning of the train's approach.

The Supreme Court further stated that "those who are crossing a railroad track are bound to exercise ordinary care and diligence to ascertain whether a train is approaching." This Supreme Court decision indicated that there was a responsibility upon railroads to warn travelers on highways of approaching trains and a responsibility upon travelers to look, listen, and stop for approaching trains.

This expanded federal highway construction program had a great deal of influence on the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Nashville, C. & St. L. Ry. v. Walters in 1935. Justice Brandeis, writing for the majority of the Court, said:

The railroad has ceased to be the prime instrument of danger and the main cause of accidents. It is the railroad which now requires protection from dangers incident to motor transportation.

Government Agency Responsibility and Involvement

Today, because a highway-rail crossing involves the intersection of two transportation modes– one public and the other private–safe and efficient operation requires strict cooperation and coordination of the involved agencies and organizations.

At the federal level, six agencies within the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) and two agencies outside USDOT have specific safety-related roles with respect to highway-rail grade crossings:

  • Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
  • Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
  • Federal Transit Administration (FTA)
  • Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
  • National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
  • Surface Transportation Board (STB)

At the State level, program administration and responsibility include the following:

  • State highway departments
  • State departments of transportation
  • State regulatory agencies (usually called public service commissions or public utility commissions)
  • State highway safety agencies
  • State departments of public safety (State police or highway patrol)

At the local level, public agencies involved include the following:

  • State highway department field maintenance organizations
  • County or township road departments
  • City street departments or public works agencies
  • County or local law enforcement agencies

Each of these involvements is described below.


The FHWA provides oversight for the State administered federally-funded programs, several of which are available for crossing improvements. FHWA apportions funds to the States according to a legislated formula and in the amounts authorized by Congress for each program. It establishes procedures by which the States obligate the funds to specific projects and oversees the overall implementation of the federally-funded programs.

The FHWA establishes standards for traffic control devices and systems at crossings and publishes them in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).(1) FHWA also has adopted various design criteria and guidelines developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and other organizations for use on federal-aid construction and reconstruction projects. It approves State-developed design directives and design criteria for resurfacing, restoration, and rehabilitation projects and other activities. The FHWA provides technical assistance to States and local agencies through the distribution of state-of-the-art publications, training classes, and the activities of State Local Technical Assistance Program centers.

The FHWA conducts research to support the previously listed activities, and research conducted by the States is often funded using Federal-Aid State Planning and Research funds. Typical research topics include traffic control devices, roadside safety, collision causation, program management tools, and collision countermeasures. Any FHWA crossing research is coordinated with FRA. FHWA promotes the maintenance of individual State grade crossing inventories and the updating of the national inventory database.


The FRA maintains the national Railroad Accident/Incident Reporting System that contains information reported by the railroads on crossing collisions. The FRA also serves as custodian of the National Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory that contains the physical and operating characteristics of each crossing. The information in the Crossing Inventory is submitted and updated by the railroads and the States. The FRA prepares, publishes, and distributes reports summarizing collision and crossing data and makes the data available on the Internet.

The FRA generally conducts field investigations of railroad accidents/incidents, including crossing collisions, which result in the death of a railroad employee or the injury of five or more persons. FRA also investigates complaints by the public pertaining to crossings and makes recommendations to the industry as appropriate.

The FRA conducts research to identify solutions to crossing problems, primarily from a railroad perspective. Typical research involves program management tools, train-borne warning devices, train car and locomotive reflectorization, and track circuitry improvements. Research is coordinated with FHWA. Both FHWA and FRA have field offices located throughout the United States that collaborate with State agencies and individual railroads on program and project issues. They ensure that policies and regulations are effectively implemented and provide feedback to headquarters regarding needs identified at the field level.

The FRA also sponsors a considerable amount of research into railroad and crossing safety issues. A significant portion of this research is carried out by the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Other research is performed through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), administered by the Transportation Research Board.

The FRA regulations enhance highway-rail crossing safety by requiring railroads to:

  • Report any impact between a highway user and railroad on-track equipment at a highway-rail grade crossing
  • Equip locomotives with auxiliary lights to improve the conspicuity of approaching trains
  • Place retro-reflective material on railroad rolling stock to make them more visible during the night or reduced light situations
  • Periodically maintain, inspect and test automatic warning devices
  • Sound locomotive horns when approaching public highway-rail crossings, unless the crossing is located within a quiet zone
  • Have an Emergency Notification System by which the public may report unsafe conditions at crossings to the railroad
  • Submit accurate, up-to-date railroad-related crossing information to the National Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory


The NHTSA maintains the Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS), a database containing information on all fatal highway collisions. The NHTSA coordinates with FRA and FHWA to provide information in FARS pertinent to crossings. The NHTSA also funds educational programs and selective law enforcement programs at crossings through State highway safety offices.


The FMCSA was established as a separate administration within USDOT on January 1, 2000, pursuant to the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999. The primary mission of FMCSA is to reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. The FMCSA is committed to increasing grade crossing safety messages to the freight and passenger motor carrier industry, as well as to its safety oversight and enforcement partners. The FMCSA encourages States to use their Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) contacts to distribute grade crossing safety materials focused on motor carrier needs and issues at crossings. The FMCSA also develops informational packages for firms in the motor carrier industry.


The FTA is one of 10 modal administrations within USDOT. It provides financial and technical assistance to local public transit systems including buses, subways, light rail, commuter rail, monorail, trolleys and ferries. FTA maintains the Safety Management System which compiles and analyzes transit safety and security data. FTA also maintains the National Transit Database (NTD) which provides a repository of data about the financial, operating and asset conditions of transit systems.


The PHMSA is a separate operating administration for pipeline safety and hazardous materials transportation safety operations. The PHMSA is the federal agency charged with the safe and secure movement of almost one million daily shipments of hazardous materials by all modes of transportation, including by rail. The agency also oversees the U.S. pipeline infrastructure, which accounts for 64 percent of the energy commodities consumed in the United States. The agency establishes national policy, sets and enforces standards, educates, and conducts research to prevent incidents. The PHMSA also prepares the public and first responders to reduce consequences if an incident does occur.


The NTSB provides a comprehensive review of the safety aspects of all transportation systems. Through special analyses and collision investigations, it identifies specific safety problems and recommends associated remedies that are presented as recommendations to specific agencies and organizations.(84)


The STB was created as an economic regulatory agency with the ICC Termination Act of 1995 and is the successor agency to ICC. The STB serves as both an adjudicatory and a regulatory body. The agency has jurisdiction over railroad rate and service issues and rail restructuring transactions including mergers, line sales, line construction, and line abandonments.

State and Local Level

Jurisdiction over highway-rail grade crossings resides primarily with the States. State highway and transportation agencies are responsible for the implementation of a program that is broad enough to involve any public crossing within the State. Within some States, responsibility is assigned to a regulatory agency referred to as a public service commission, a public utilities commission, or similar designation. In other States, the authority is divided among the public administrative agencies of the State, county, or city having jurisdiction over the respective highway and street systems–practitioners are advised to verify current local responsibilities. State and local law enforcement agencies are responsible for the enforcement of traffic laws at crossings. Local government bodies are responsible for ordinances governing traffic laws and operational matters relating to crossings. States have State-specific laws that can affect how their programs (including funding and maintenance) are managed.

The historical shifting of responsibility for safety at crossings from the railroads to the public and the increasing availability of federal funds have led to more of that responsibility being placed on State and local agencies. This shift culminated with the inclusion of Part VIII, "Traffic Control Systems for Highway-Rail Grade Crossings," in the 1978 edition of MUTCD. Part VIII consolidated certain information that had been scattered throughout MUTCD and superseded the Association of American Railroads (AAR) bulletins covering crossing signalization that had been issued by AAR Committee D. The FHWA has also issued regulations specifying criteria for the selection of traffic control devices at highway-rail grade crossings.

The highway agency having jurisdiction at public crossings is the entity responsible for determining appropriate traffic control devices. Even though the railroads retain the responsibility for the installation and maintenance of Crossbuck signs at passive crossings and for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of railroad crossing signals, State transportation and regulatory agencies have the responsibility to assure that the standards set forth in MUTCD and elsewhere in federal regulations are followed. The street or highway agency is also responsible for the installation and maintenance of all traffic control devices on the approaches to the crossing; for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of highway traffic signals that may be interconnected with the grade crossing signals; and for the installation and maintenance of certain passive signs at the crossing, such as STOP signs or "Do Not Stop on Tracks" signs.

Although the railroads retain responsibility for the construction, reconstruction, and maintenance of the track structure and the riding surface at the highway-rail intersection, their obligation for the roadway usually ends within a few inches of the outside ends of the ties that support the rails and the crossing surface. The street or highway agency has responsibility for the design, construction, and maintenance of the roadway approaches to the crossing, even though these approaches may lie within the railroad's ROW.(85)

Railroad Responsibility and Involvement

Railroads work with State, county, and municipalities to alleviate operational and safety concerns at highway-rail grade crossings. Typically, Class I carriers have "public projects" staff who work with State and local highway authorities to implement improvements to grade crossings, grade crossing closures, grade separations, and quiet zone improvements. Railroads also conduct some research to identify and apply new technology and further new concepts regarding crossing safety and operations.

Founded in 1934, the AAR leads a wide range of policy, research, standards setting, and technology related to the operations of the U.S. freight rail industry. The AAR full members include the major freight railroads in the United States, Canada and Mexico, as well as Amtrak. The AAR railroad affiliate and associate members include non-Class I and commuter railroads, rail supply companies, engineering firms, signal and communications firms, and rail car owners.

Policy Making

Working with elected officials and leaders in Washington, DC, AAR works to advance sound public policy that supports the interests of the freight rail industry to ensure it will continue to meet America's transportation needs.

Standard Setting

As the standard setting organization for North America's railroads, AAR establishes safety, security, and operating standards that provide for seamless and safe operations across America's 140,000-mile freight rail network.

Industry Data, Reports and Publications

The AAR prepares weekly, quarterly, and annual statistical reports providing comprehensive insight into the operations of North America's freight railroads. The AAR members may access the publications catalog, covering many aspects of freight railroading from the latest economic statistics to the correct means of loading and securing various freight shipments and research reports from AAR's Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI). These publications offer economic, financial, policy, and general statistical information, and can be purchased from their online catalog.

Research and Technology Initiatives

Through its two subsidiaries, TTCI and Railinc, AAR supports continued research and development projects to enhance the safety, security, and efficiency of the railroad industry. The TTCI is the world's leading research, development, and testing facility, and develops next-generation advancements in safety and operational efficiency. Railinc serves as the rail industry's leading resource for rail data, information technology, and information services, and uses one of the world's largest data networks to track customer shipments. The AAR also supports the Railroad Research Foundation, a world-class policy research organization dedicated to sustaining a safe, secure, and technologically advanced rail network.

The AAR has been active in crossing programs and has established a State-Rail Programs Division within its Operations and Maintenance Department. This division provides information to Congress and USDOT to assist in the administration and establishment of crossing programs. Railroad interests and concerns regarding crossing programs are typically coordinated through the AAR office. The State-Rail Programs Division has an appointed railroad employee in each State to serve as the AAR State representative on crossing safety matters. A list of State representatives is available from AAR.

Other railroad-related companies and suppliers also participate in crossing safety programs. The signal suppliers and manufacturers of crossing surface systems provide guidance for the selection of a specific device or crossing surface. In addition, these companies are actively conducting research to improve their products.