FRA’s Feinberg: There’s been grade-crossing safety progress, but states, railroads and tech companies can do more
By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor, Progressive Railroading
Sarah Feinberg had been serving as the acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for less than a month when a deadly collision occurred Feb. 3, 2015, between an MTA Metro-North Railroad train and an SUV at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y. The SUV stopped on the track after the warning gates lowered to signal the approaching train, which ultimately slammed into the vehicle. The collision led to a fire that engulfed the SUV and the train’s first rail car; the motorist and five train passengers died.
While Feinberg and other FRA administrators often speak of the need to improve safety statistics in all aspects of railroading, Feinberg has been particularly passionate about grade-crossing safety since President Obama officially nominated her to the FRA post in spring 2015. Incidents at crossings and trespassing on rail rights-of-way remain the No. 1 cause of death and injury in rail transportation; more than 200 people are killed every year in crossing accidents in the United States, according to Feinberg.
Her passion comes from the belief that all grade-crossing deaths are preventable. Feinberg has spent the better part of her FRA tenure calling on states, communities, law-enforcement agencies railroads and, more recently, technology companies to step up safety measures to prevent fatalities at crossings.
Although crossing safety progress has been made over the past two years, work remains on several fronts, Feinberg said in a recent interview.
“Our fatality numbers in 2015 were down from the grim numbers of 2014, but we don’t know yet if we will sustain that progress through 2016,” she told the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee during a September 2016 meeting in Washington, D.C., according to a text of her remarks. “And I can tell you that there have already been far too many incidents at crossings this year — incidents which have killed children and parents, and sometimes entire families.”
Event recorders, more inspections
As FRA administrator, Feinberg has urged state departments of transportation to help railroads investigate 5,000 crossings with interconnected traffic lights to make sure they’re synced to sufficiently warn drivers and pedestrians to stop prior to a train’s approach. FRA regulators also have asked states to install event recorders at traffic lights connected to crossing systems so that information obtained during inspections can be used to improve safety.
Moreover, federal regulators at Feinberg’s urging have worked with local police departments to step up enforcement around crossings. That effort was in response to an uptick in crossing fatalities in 2014, when 267 people died in incidents involving trains and vehicles — up from 244 fatalities in 2015, according to FRA data.
In spring 2015, the FRA launched a campaign to partner with tech companies like Google to use federal data that pinpoints the nation’s 200,000 crossings to add visual and audio alerts to GPS map applications. Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) echoed that call in a report on the board’s investigation of a fatal Metrolink crash in Oxnard, Calif. In February 2015, a Metrolink commuter train collided with a truck that was abandoned on the track after the driver got lost and mistakenly turned at a crossing onto the railroad’s right of way. The train engineer later died of his injuries. Data from the truck driver’s cell phone indicated he had been using a mapping app when he made the wrong turn.
The NTSB now recommends that Google, Apple, Garmin, HERE, TomTom, INRIX, MapQuest, Microsoft Corp., Omnitracs, OpenStreetMap US, Sensys Networks Inc., StreetLight Data, Teletrac and UPS of America incorporate crossing-related GIS data, such as those being prepared by the FRA, into their navigation applications to provide drivers with additional safety cues to reduce the likelihood of crashes at or near public and private crossings.