Rail is a safe and efficient way to move both people and goods. Moving goods via freight trains reduces the number of large trucks on our congested highways. Riding a train is more than 23 times safer than traveling by car.

Rules to Remember

Trains have the right of way
Legally, trains have the right of way. Trains are very heavy and can't stop quickly—even if they're traveling at low speeds. By the time a locomotive engineer can see you or your car, it's nearly always too late for them to stop to avoid hitting you. Trains also can't swerve to avoid you or your car because they travel on tracks.

Never trespass or cross tracks illegally
Railroad tracks are private property, not public trails. It's illegal and dangerous to walk on or near tracks unless you're using a designated crossing. It's also illegal and extremely dangerous to drive around closed crossing gates or to ignore flashing warning lights. Trains travel in both directions on all tracks—so it's impossible to predict which direction a train will approach from.

Always expect a train
While you may think you know the schedules of trains that run through your neighborhood, a train can travel on the tracks at any time. Passenger and regularly scheduled freight trains run early or late. Freight trains are needed to carry goods day and night on sporadic runs. Track maintenance work miles away can require dispatchers to adjust usually steady schedules.

Train Speeds

Railroad companies and their customers like to operate trains as fast as good engineering and safety practices allow. Ultimately, time is money in the competitive world of transportation and freight mobility. Requiring slower train speeds would likely have a number of negative impacts, including:

  • More traffic congestion in communities as slower trains block grade crossings for longer periods.
  • Higher transportation costs for the economy as a whole, which translates into higher prices at stores.
  • More trucks on our already-congested roadways as shippers shift their business away from railroads .
  • Fewer trains on a given stretch of track.
  • Passengers clogging highways and airports as train travel becomes less convenient.
  • More incidents as people try to "beat the train" and trespass on railroad tracks.

Faster train speeds:

  • Reduce wait times at crossings for truck and car traffic on local streets.
  • Help businesses that ship by rail.
  • Benefit Amtrak and commuter rail passengers.

Train speeds usually increase only after track and signal improvements are constructed to ensure faster trains can run safely.

Because of the size of trains, they appear to be traveling much slower than they are, making them appear to be farther away. Because of this, vehicle drivers at grade crossings think they can "beat the train." Sadly, this is often not the case. Crossing in front of an oncoming train is always dangerous and many people have lost their lives or been injured as a result. Almost 95 percent of railroad fatalities are motorists at grade crossings, or people who have trespassed on railroad property.
The federal government controls most regulations of freight train traffic. For further information contact the federal Surface Transportation Board or the Federal Railroad Administration.

Grade Crossings and Grade Separations

A railroad grade crossing is an intersection where a rail line and a roadway cross one another at the same level. To avoid collisions, control devices are required at grade crossings just like intersecting roads need stop signs or traffic signals. Control devices include warning signs, crossbucks (the familiar x-shaped signs), pavement markings, and, in some locations, gates and flashing lights.

A grade separation is created when a bridge or tunnel is built to allow the roadway to pass over or under the rail line, completely separating automobiles and other traffic from trains.

Responsibility for grade separation varies among local, state, and federal governments. Grade separation is required for new road construction and recommended for existing grade crossings when "design thresholds" are exceeded. Design thresholds look at the number of cars and trains traveling through the crossing, train speeds, the number and type of tracks, and how many road lanes there are. Grade separation is expensive and can be disruptive to neighborhoods, if businesses or homes adjacent to the intersection must be condemned or relocated. Creating grade separation at a single crossing can easily cost $15 to $20 million. There are often less expensive alternatives to grade separation such as:

  • Upgrading crossing gates and lights.
  • Rerouting local road traffic.
  • Upgrading one crossing while closing adjacent crossings.

Railroads are usually privately owned. Local public works departments coordinate the installation of crossing signals and safety devices with the railroad company. The public works department requests signals and safety/warning devices and lines up money to pay for them. The railroad installs and maintains them. The public works department can request federal funding to pay for the cost of signal installation.

Concerns or issues about grade crossings should be directed to the local public works department in the community where the crossing exists, listed in the government pages of the phone book.

Operation Lifesaver

Operation Lifesaver is an international, non-profit education and awareness program dedicated to ending tragic collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad rights of way. To accomplish its mission, Operation Lifesaver promotes the "3 E's":

  • Education: Operation Lifesaver seeks to educate drivers and pedestrians to make safer decisions at crossings and around railroad tracks.
  • Enforcement: Operation Lifesaver works with law enforcement officials to reduce grade crossing and trespassing incidents.
  • Engineering: Operation Lifesaver encourages engineering projects to improve public safety.