Note: This document summarizes current practices but does not set standards; practitioners are advised to check current local standards and requirements (refer to Disclaimer and Quality Assurance Statement). Users of the data provided within this document should anticipate possible variations from current information within the FRA databases, which are updated monthly.
This chapter presents engineered treatments applicable to highway-rail and pedestrian crossings. The full range of options from closure, reconfiguration, and grade separation to application of passive treatments and active devices is addressed. The applicability of each option or treatment is presented in terms of those typical conditions that would indicate consideration of such a device or treatment. Specific guidance on device selection is presented in Chapter 3. This chapter also addresses over-arching legal and policy considerations that should be kept in mind.
Note: Traffic control devices defined in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) terms are referenced along with their respective sign number (in parentheses) throughout this section.
EXISTING LAWS, RULES, REGULATIONS, AND POLICIES
Current FHWA regulations specifically prohibit at-grade intersections on Interstate highways (AASHTO "A Policy on Design Standards–Interstate System," May 2016).(6) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has established maximum permissible speeds by track class category (refer to Appendix B, Table B-5 for track classes and allowable speeds). Current FRA regulations require that crossings be separated or closed at locations where trains operate at speeds above 125 mph–track Class 8 or 9 (49 CFR 213.347(a)). Additionally, on FRA track Class 7 (111-125 mph), an application must be made to FRA for approval of the type of warning/barrier system to be used at highway-rail grade crossings along the track (49 CFR 213.347(b)). The regulation does not specify the type of system but allows the petitioner to propose a suitable system for FRA review. These requirements are summarized in Table 1.
In 1998, FRA issued an Order of Particular Applicability for high-speed rail service on the Northeast Corridor.(7) In the Order, FRA set a maximum operating speed of 80 mph over any highway-rail crossing where only conventional warning systems are in place and a maximum operating speed of 95 mph where four-quadrant gates and presence detection are provided and tied into the signal system. Crossings are prohibited on the Northeast Corridor if maximum operating speeds exceed 95 mph.
Table 1. Federal Requirements for High-Speed Rail Crossings
|–||Active||Warning/Barrier with FRA Approval||Grade Separation or Closure|
|Interstate highways||Not allowed||Not allowed||Required|
|High-speed rail||> 79 mph||111-125 mph||> 125 mph|
Special consideration applies to crossings where train speeds are expected to exceed 110 mph. FRA regulations require the use of an approved "barrier system" if train operation is projected at 111-125 mph speeds. As stated in the 2009 Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Guidelines for High-Speed Passenger Rail published by the FRA(8), barrier systems need to meet the following criteria to be effective:
- Operate in concert with the crossing warning system, and the combined system provides critical information about the health and status of the system to the train control system in real time
- Able to stop the heaviest motor vehicle operated on the roadway short of the crossing
- Include the capability to detect any significant obstruction (object) that remains on the crossing after the barriers are in place
- Able to communicate the presence of any significant obstruction to approaching high-speed trains with enough time for the train to reduce speed or stop before reaching the crossing
The interaction between high-speed trains and pedestrians should be carefully considered when identifying appropriate warning systems and treatments to be implemented. The single largest cause of deaths associated with railroad operations is pedestrians trespassing on railroad property. Special consideration should be applied to controlling trespassing attempts.
Private grade crossings on high-speed rail corridors are considered separately. Such crossings may be located along non-public roads within industrial, residential, or agricultural lands. Private crossings generally exist because of an agreement between a railroad and a land owner. Therefore, in most cases those parties determine the appropriate treatment for the crossing. Where private crossings are open to public travel, consideration should be given to providing similar treatment to that which would be provided at a public crossing. In addition, if private crossings exist within a proposed quiet zone, a diagnostics review may be required, and a determination should be made of an appropriate treatment. Additional information can be found in FRA's regulations at 49 CFR 213.347, including the requirement that crossings be separated or closed at locations where train speeds exceed 125 mph.
CLOSURE OR SEPARATION
The first alternative that should always be considered for a highway-rail crossing is elimination, which can be accomplished by the following:
- Replacing the crossing with a grade separated facility
- Closing the crossing to highway traffic and removing the roadway crossing surface
- Closing the crossing to railroad traffic through the abandonment or relocation of the rail line and removal of the railroad tracks
Closure of a crossing provides the highest level of crossing safety compared to other alternatives, because the point of intersection between highway and railroad is removed. However, the effects of closure on highway and railroad operations may not always be completely beneficial. The major benefits of crossing closure include reductions in certain types of collisions and decreased delays to highway and rail traffic, as well as lowered maintenance costs.
Decisions about whether a crossing should be eliminated or simply improved depends upon safety, operational, and cost considerations. However, federal regulation (23 CFR 646.214(c)) specifies that "all crossings of railroads and highways at grade shall be eliminated where there is full control of access on the highway (a freeway) regardless of the volume of railroad or highway traffic."
The following four types of delay can occur on highway traffic by crossings:
- Presence of crossing–This delay occurs regardless of whether a train is approaching or occupying the crossing. Motorists usually slow in advance of crossings so that they can stop safely if a train is approaching. This is a required safe driving practice in conformance with the Uniform Vehicle Code, which states "...vehicles must stop within 15 to 50 feet from the crossing when a train is in such proximity so as to constitute an immediate hazard."9 Therefore, the existence of a crossing may cause some delays to motorists who slow to look for a train.
- Traffic control devices–Road users are subject to delay at passive crossings with STOP or YIELD signs as well as at active crossings when traffic control devices are actuated.
- Trains blocking crossings–Trains may stop and block a crossing in response to a train signal indication or during switching operations.
- Special vehicles–Under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations, all vehicles transporting passengers and trucks carrying many types of hazardous materials must stop prior to crossing tracks at a highway-rail crossing (49 CFR 392.10). If following vehicles do not anticipate such stops and/or fail to maintain safe stopping distance, collisions may result.
Another benefit of crossing closure is the alleviation of maintenance costs of surfaces and traffic control devices. As discussed in Chapter 5, these costs can be quite substantial for both highway agencies and railroads.
Some States have incentive programs intended to encourage crossing closure. Additionally, railroads may participate in a project resulting in a closure either on a case-by-case basis or as part of an initiative (one State's program is described in the following section). Crossing closures are usually accomplished by closing the highway. The number of crossings needed to carry highway traffic over a railroad in a community is influenced by many characteristics of the community itself. A study of community travel demand should be conducted to determine major origin and destination points and assess what is needed to provide adequate highway capacity then needed to satisfy demand. Thus, optimum routes over railroads can be determined. Traffic over several crossings may be consolidated to a nearby crossing with flashing-lights and gates or over a nearby grade separation. Alternative routes should be within a reasonable travel time and distance from a closed crossing. The alternative routes should have sufficient capacity to accommodate the diverted traffic safely and efficiently. The impact on pedestrian travel should be evaluated as well.
Identifying and eliminating redundant, closely spaced, or unneeded crossings should be a high priority. The decision to close or consolidate crossings requires balancing public safety, convenience, and access with the needs of the railroad to operate trains safely and efficiently. The crossing closure decision should be based on economics–comparing the cost of retaining the crossing (e.g., maintenance, collisions, and cost to improve the crossing to an acceptable level if it remains, etc.)–against the cost (if any) of providing alternate access and any adverse travel costs incurred by users having to cross at some other location. While this can be a political and sensitive or controversial issue at the local level, the economics of the situation cannot be ignored. This subject is addressed in the FRA's Research Results: Crossing Consolidation Guidelines, RR 09-12.(10)
Challenges to obtain successful closures include negative community feedback, funding, and the lack of forceful State laws authorizing closure or the reluctant utilization of State laws that permit closure.
As part of the process of implementing a crossing closure, it is important to consider whether the diversion of highway traffic may be sufficient to change the type or level of traffic control needed at other crossings. The surrounding street system should be examined to assess the effects of diverted traffic. Often, coupling a closure with the installation of improved or upgraded traffic control devices at one or more adjacent crossings can be an effective means of mitigating local political resistance to the closure.
Legislation that authorizes a State agency to close crossings facilitates the implementation of closures. These State agencies should utilize their authority to close crossings whenever possible. A State agency may be able to accomplish closure where local efforts may not have achieved success. Local opposition sometimes can be overcome by emphasizing the benefits resulting from closure, such as improved traffic flow and safety as traffic is redirected to grade separations or crossings with active traffic control devices. Railroads often support closure not only due to safety concerns but also because closure eliminates maintenance costs associated with the crossing. Refer to the following document for State-by-State specifics: "Compilation of State Laws and Regulations Affecting Highway-Rail Grade Crossings."
Achieving consensus is integral to the closure process. Closure criteria vary by locality but typically include consideration of the following:
- Train and roadway traffic volume
- Speed of trains
- Number of tracks
- Material being carried
- Crossing location
- Distance to traffic signals
- Number of crashes
Locations with more than four crossings per railroad route-mile with fewer than 2,000 vehicles per day and more than two trains per day are prime candidates for closure.
To assist in the identification of crossings that may be closed, the systems approach might be utilized, as discussed in Chapter 3. With this method, several crossings in a community or rail
corridor are improved by the installation of traffic control devices, while other crossings are closed or grade separated. This is accomplished following a study of traffic flows in the area to ensure continuing access across the railroad. Traffic flows are sometimes improved by the installation of more sophisticated traffic control systems at the remaining crossings.
Another important matter to consider regarding crossing closure is access over the railroad by emergency vehicles. Crossings frequently utilized by emergency vehicles should be candidates for grade separations or the installation of active traffic control devices. Specific criteria to identify crossings that should be closed are difficult to establish because of the numerous and various factors that should be considered. Refer to Chapter 3 for criteria that may be used for crossing closure and to Section 8A.05 of the MUTCD for provisions relevant to crossing closure. Additional information regarding grade crossing closure and improvement programs can be found on pages 485-486 of the Traffic Control Devices Handbook.(2) It is important that these criteria not be used without professional, objective, engineering, and economic assessment of the positive and negative impacts of crossing closures.
When a crossing is permanently closed to highway traffic, the crossing surface and approaches should be obliterated and removed, leaving as few traces of the former crossing as is practicable. When a crossing is closed to train traffic, the highway authority, where practical, should remove the tracks within the highway to reduce future maintenance costs. Paving over tracks with asphaltic paving is not recommended because it is possible for "reflection cracks" to subsequently emerge.
Generally, the railroad is responsible for removing the crossing surface and traffic control devices located at the crossing, such as the Crossbuck sign, flashing-light signals, and gates. The railroad is also generally responsible for restoring the ditch line and removing any evidence of a crossing on railroad property, including the drainage.
Depending on the agreement between a highway authority and the operating railroad(s), the highway authority may be responsible for actions including but not limited to the following:
- Removing traffic control devices in advance of the crossing, such as the advance warning signs and pavement markings.
- Upon termination of any interconnection in cooperation with the railroad, the highway authority may be charged with making any adjustments to the highway traffic signal system, now that the interconnection has been severed, and railroad preemption will no longer occur. The MUTCD shows examples of some effective road closure traffic controls in Part 6. Many States also have effective, MUTCD-compliant road closure signing packages in their standards.
- Installing warning and regulatory signing in accordance with the MUTCD to alert motorists that the crossing is now closed. These signs include the "ROAD CLOSED" sign (R11-2), "LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY" sign (R11-3, R11-4), and appropriate advance warning signs as applicable to the specific crossing.
- Removing roadway surface approaches.
Consideration should also be given to advising motorists of alternate routes across the railroad. If motorists use the crossing being closed, they should be given advance information about the closure at points where they can conveniently alter their route. Consideration should be made for pedestrian activity at closures as well; nearby, easy alternative routes should be provided for pedestrians to use to discourage trespassing.
CROSSING CONSOLIDATION AND SAFETY PROGRAMS
A highly effective approach to improving safety involves the development of a program of treatments to eliminate significant numbers of crossings within a segment of rail line while improving those that are to remain at grade. Both FRA(10) and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)(12) have developed guidelines for crossing consolidation. State departments of transportation, road authorities, and local governments may choose to develop their own criteria for closures based on local conditions. Whatever the case, a specific criterion or approach should be used to avoid arbitrarily selecting crossings for closure.
Preparation of a "traffic separation study" is a good way to start. As part of a comprehensive evaluation of traffic patterns and road usage for an entire municipality or region, traffic separation studies determine the need for improvements and/or elimination of public highway-rail crossings based on specific criteria. Traffic separation studies progress in three phases: preliminary planning, study, and implementation.
Crossing information is collected at all public crossings in the municipality. Evaluation criteria include collision history, current and projected vehicular and train traffic, crossing condition, school bus and emergency routes, types of traffic control devices, feasibility for improvements, and economic impact of crossing closures. After discussions with the parties involved, these recommendations may be modified. Reaching a consensus is essential prior to scheduling presentations to governing bodies and citizens.
A key element of a traffic separation study is the inclusion of a public involvement element, including crossing safety workshops and public hearings. The goal of these forums is to exchange information and convey the community benefits of enhanced crossing safety, including the potential neighborhood impacts from train derailments involving hazardous materials that can result from crossing collisions.
The following examples describe crossing consolidation as undertaken by different stakeholders:
State Program Example–North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT)
Many States have crossing closure programs and procedures: Although older, a relevant example of a closure program is the effort begun by the NCDOT in 1993. North Carolina recorded its 300th crossing closure in 2017 and the NCDOT "Sealed Corridor" effort is an excellent model of a State-level crossing program which included grade separations, crossing closures, and improvements including four quadrant gate systems, medians, and test of vehicle detection radar to crossings left open.(13) The NCDOT's crossing closure criteria considers the following:
- Crossings within one-quarter-mile of one another that are part of the same highway or street network
- Crossings where vehicular traffic can be safely and efficiently redirected to an adjacent crossing
- Crossings where a high number of crashes have occurred
- Crossings with reduced sight distance because of the angle of the intersection, curve of the track, trees, undergrowth, or man-made obstructions
- Adjacent crossings where one is replaced with a bridge or upgraded with new signaling devices
- Several adjacent crossings when a new one is being built
- Complex crossings where it is difficult to provide adequate warning devices or that have severe operating problems, such as multiple tracks, extensive railroad-switching operations, or long periods of blocked crossings
- Private crossings for which no responsible owner can be identified
- Private crossings where the owner is unable or unwilling to fund improvements and where alternate access to the other side of the tracks is reasonably available
The NCDOT considers the following factors in deciding whether to close or improve a crossing:
- Collision history
- Vehicle and train traffic (present and projected)
- Type of roadway (e.g., thoroughfare, collector, local access, truck route, school bus route, or designated emergency route, etc.)
- Economic impact of closing the crossing
- Alternative roadway access
- Type of property being served (e.g., residential, commercial, or industrial, etc.)
- Potential for bridging by overpass or underpass
- Need for enhanced warning devices (four-quadrant gates, longer arm gates, or median barriers)
- Feasibility for roadway improvements
- Crossing condition (geometry, sight distance, and crossing surface)
- Available federal, State, and/or local funding
Closure implementation strategies used by NCDOT include the following:
- Constructing a connector road or improving roadways along alternate routes to direct traffic to an adjacent crossing
- Dead-ending affected streets and rerouting traffic, creating cul-de-sacs
- Constructing bridges
- Relocating or consolidating railroad operations
Local Program Example–San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments (SGVCOG)
A local grade crossing closure program developed in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California is one of the largest local programs of crossing improvements, closures, and grade separations. The SGVCOG conducted a study of 55 grade crossings which identified 19 grade separations to eliminate 23 crossings as well as improvements to crossings remaining at grade.(14) SGVCOG obtained local funding and established the Alameda Corridor–East Construction Authority in 1998. In 2018, the Authority was advancing the final grade separations for construction and is nearing the final stages of a large program which includes 19 grade separations to eliminate 23 at-grade crossings along with implementing safety and mobility upgrades at 53 crossings.(15)
Railroad Program Example–BNSF Railway Company (BNSF)
One crossing closure initiative was established by BNSF in 2000.(16) This initiative is part of BNSF's crossing safety program, which has the goal of reducing crossing collisions, injuries, and fatalities. The crossing safety program also includes community education, enhanced crossing technology, crossing resurfacing, vegetation control, installation of warning devices, and track and signal inspection and maintenance. In March 2006, BNSF closed its 3,000th highway-rail crossing since the beginning of its crossing closure initiative. By eliminating unnecessary and redundant crossings, BNSF has made an important contribution to community safety while also improving the efficiency and safety of its rail operation. The following are the three key elements of BNSF's crossing closure initiative:
- A closure team was assembled, bringing together field safety and the public projects group in engineering.
- Division engineering and transportation personnel identified closure candidates.
- A closure database was developed to track progress.
INACTIVE OR ABANDONED CROSSINGS
The first step in addressing the problem of crossings on abandoned rail lines is to obtain information on actual abandonments from the Surface Transportation Board (STB) or a State regulatory commission. Railroads are required to apply to STB for permission to abandon a rail line (49 CFR Part 1152). In addition, some State laws require railroads to also apply for State permission or to notify a State agency of intent to abandon a railroad line. The State highway representative responsible for crossing safety and operations should be notified of these intentions. The State highway agency might work out an agreement with the State regulatory commission that any information on railroad abandonments is automatically sent to the State highway agency. Railroad personnel responsible for crossing safety and operations should also seek the same information from their operating departments.
In a case where the railroad line has been abandoned, but the unused crossing warning devices remain in place, unnecessary delays may result, particularly for special vehicles required by federal and State laws to stop at every crossing. Additionally, if rail features such as track and warning devices are left in place on abandoned lines, road users may become conditioned to ignoring such features, thus potentially reducing the credibility of crossing warning devices on other crossings.
The desirable course of action for abandoned crossings is to remove all traffic control devices related to the crossing and remove the tracks. The difficulty is in identifying a statutorily abandoned railroad line, as opposed to a railroad that has simply fallen into disuse but remains open for railroad purposes. For example, a railroad may discontinue service over a line or a track with the possibility that another railroad, particularly a short-line railroad, may later purchase or lease the line to resume that service. These railroad lines are called inactive lines and removing the track will add substantial cost when reactivating the service.
Another type of inactive rail line is one with seasonal service. For example, rail lines that serve grain elevators may only have trains during harvest season. The lack of use during the rest of the year may cause the same safety and operational problems described earlier.
Once a rail line has been identified as already abandoned or as a candidate for abandonment, the crossings on that line should be identified. This can be determined from the State inventory of crossings or obtained from FRA, custodian of the USDOT National Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory. A field inspection of these crossings should be made to determine if all crossings on that line, both public and private, are listed in the inventory as well as to verify the type of crossing warning devices located at each crossing.
This field inspection provides an excellent opportunity to assess the safety and operations of each crossing on that line. If the rail line is not abandoned, the necessary information has been gathered to improve each crossing by one of the alternatives described in following sections.
If rail service has been discontinued, pending resolution of the abandonment application and formal abandonment, immediate measures should be taken to inform the public. For example, "EXEMPT" signs, if authorized by State law or regulation, can be placed at the crossing to notify drivers of special vehicles that a stop at the crossing is not necessary. Gate arms should be removed and flashing-light signal heads should be hooded, turned, or removed. However, if train service is resumed, 49 CFR 234.247 requires that the crossing warning devices be operational and all FRA-required tests and inspections be conducted prior to operating any trains over the crossing.
The track should be physically removed and all traffic control devices removed following official abandonment if no possibility exists for resumption of rail service. This can be determined by examining the potential for industry or business to require rail service. For example, if the rail line was abandoned because the industry that required the service has moved and other plans for the land area have been made, it could be determined whether need for the rail service will continue. An agreement may be necessary between the public authority and the railroad to accomplish the physical removal of the tracks.
REMOVAL OF GRADE SEPARATION STRUCTURES
The FRA data indicates as of 2017, there were approximately 36,000 public grade-separated highway-rail crossings in the United States–more than half of these grade-separated crossings have a bridge or highway structure over the railroad tracks. As these structures age, become damaged, or are no longer needed because of changes in highway or railroad alignment, an engineering evaluation should be performed to determine whether the structures should be upgraded or removed.
Currently, there are no nationally recognized guidelines for evaluating the alternatives available for the improvement or replacement of grade-separation structures; however, some States have developed evaluation methods for the selection of projects to remove grade-separation structures.
State Level Guidance–Pennsylvania
The purpose of the Pennsylvania guidance is to assist highway department personnel in the selection of candidate bridge removal projects where the railroad line is abandoned. Both bridges carrying highway over railroad and bridges carrying abandoned railroad over highway can be considered. The factors to be considered in selecting candidate projects are as follows:
For bridges carrying highway over an abandoned railroad:
- Bridges that are closed or posted for a weight limit because of structural deficiencies (the length of the necessary detour is important)
- Bridges that are narrow and therefore hazardous
- Bridges with hazardous vertical and/or horizontal alignment of the highway approaches (accident records can be reviewed to verify such conditions)
For bridges carrying abandoned railroad over a highway:
- Bridges that are structurally unsound and a hazard to traffic operating under the bridge
- Bridges whose piers and/or abutments are near the traveled highway and constitute a hazard
- Bridges whose vertical clearance over the highway is substandard
- Bridges where the vertical and/or horizontal alignment of the highway approaches are hazardous primarily because of the location of the bridge
It should be noted that this guidance is applicable to situations that involve abandoned rail lines.
In instances where a railroad continues to operate, some questions to consider prior to removing a grade separation over or under a rail line are as follows:
- Can the structure be removed and replaced with a crossing?
- Who is liable if an accident occurs at the new crossing?
- If the structure is to be rebuilt, who is to pay the cost or who is to share in the cost and to what extent?
- To what standards is the structure to be rebuilt?
- What is the future track use and potential for increase in train frequency?
- If the structure is replaced with a crossing, what delays to motorists and emergency service will result? Are alternate routes available?
- What impact will a crossing have on railroad operations?
- What will be the impact on safety of a crossing versus a structure?
To ensure a proper answer to these and other related questions, an engineering evaluation, including relative costs, should be conducted. This evaluation should follow procedures described in Chapter 3 of this document.
Other alternatives to highway-rail crossing improvement programs are relocation of the highway or railroad, or railroad consolidation. These alternatives provide a solution to railroad impacts on communities such as noise, traffic delays, and the land use "barrier" effect of a rail corridor; however, the costs associated with relocation or consolidation can be high.
Benefits of railroad relocation in addition to those associated with crossing safety and operations include improved environment resulting from decreased noise and air pollution, improved land use and appearance, and improved railroad efficiency. Railroad relocation and consolidation may also eliminate obstructions to emergency vehicles and provide safer movement of hazardous materials. Collectively, the tangible and intangible benefits may justify the relocation or consolidation of railroad facilities; any one of the benefits alone might not provide sufficient justification for the expense.
Many factors should be considered in planning for railroad relocation. The new location should provide proper alignment, minimum grades, and adequate drainage. Sufficient ROW should be available to provide the necessary horizontal clearances, additional rail facilities as service grows, and a buffer for abating noise and vibrations. The number of crossings should be minimized.
The railroad corridor can be further isolated from residential and commercial activity by zoning the property adjacent to the railroad as light and heavy industrial. Businesses and industry desiring rail service can locate in this area.
Highway relocations are sometimes accomplished to provide improved highway traffic flow around communities and other developed areas. Planning for highway relocations should consider routes that eliminate crossings by avoiding the need for access over railroad tracks or by providing grade separations.