National Corridors Initiative Calls for Grade Crossing Removal

March 19, 1999

The National Corridors Initiative
NCI Inc.
35 Terminal Road Suite 210 Providence, RI 02905
Voice(Boston office):617-269-5478 -- Fax:617-269-3943
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Stop the Needless Carnage on the Nation's Rail System
by James P. RePass, President & CEO
The National Corridors Initiative

It is time to end the needless carnage taking place daily at the nation's countless railroad crossings, tragically illustrated again this week when a steel truck pulled across the path of Amtrak's City of New Orleans, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 100, Amtrak crew and passengers alike.

This awful event was without doubt completely avoidable. For decades Federal transportation policy, although admitting the problem, has failed to adequately fund rail safety. Restricting access to, closing off, or bridging over of grade-level crossings should be a priority, not an afterthought. At the very least new gate and moveable barrier systems, some of which are relatively inexpensive, could be employed. No one would even suggest random uncontrolled automobile traffic on an airport runway. Indeed, security is tight. No one would support the idea of uncontrolled at-grade crossing of an Interstate Highway. Indeed, one could expect at least a ticket in most cases.

And yet today there are more than 180,000 at-grade crossings, some of which see dozens of trains a day, which are open to any one with a driver's license.

March 15's terrible event was but one of many that happen each year. The vast majority of such accidents involve freight railroads, not Amtrak. It made the news because so many were killed. But every day, somewhere, an engineer, conductor, motorist, or pedestrian, are killed at railroad grade crossings. This needless carnage continues, despite the best efforts of groups like Operation Lifesaver whose education programs have in fact saved many lives.

But it is time to get beyond exhortation to "Stop, Look, and Listen". People are all too fallible, and Murphy's Law will always apply unless we end the system that permits collisions in the first place. It is time to stop the insane practice of permitting cars and trucks direct access to property where even a low-speed accident is often fatal, and which puts in danger not only railroad passengers and crew, but the health and safety of surrounding communities as well.

The National Corridors Initiative respectfully asks Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert to appoint a Joint Congressional Commission to investigate the extent to which grade crossings may be marked, closed off or bridged over, and then provide the money to close or bridge them. Some funds have been provided as part of the Corridors program that our organization supports, but it is a relatively small amount, and lacks the focus that this tragic situation demands. In particular North Carolina has developed a "Sealed Corridor" program which involves flexible barriers and full-coverage crossing gates. On one test, it reduced drive-arounds by 77%, and in another, 98%.

And Congress should also act upon the recent resolution of one of the nation's best-run public policy groups, the National Governors Association, and immediately give the state's Governors the right to allocate highway funds for intercity rail as they see fit. That would give Governors the right to spend what is really their own taxpayers' money without bureaucratic intrusion, permitting safer, faster, and more efficient passenger and freight rail service. While mayors and other elected officials are the best to judge which crossings can be closed or moved, or bridged over, the governors' clout is needed to get the money needed to take action. And action, not talk, is what is needed here. We all know that there will always be fools and lunatics who will try to go around the gates. We have to stop giving them that opportunity, at least on the most heavily traveled rail corridor.

Doing nothing is impermissible. The House and the Senate have able men and women who can lead this effort. Let's not wait until another family loses its father or mother, another railroad sees its best engineer killed, or another child is harmed. It is time to treat railroad safety with the same seriousness and degree of commitment that we give to air and highway safety. It is time to free up the nation's governors to make the decisions they need to make. This is a solvable problem. Let's solve it NOW.

The National Corridors Initiative is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of a better-balanced transportation system through increased investment in passenger and freight rail infrastructure.

NCI is sponsoring a national conference "The National Rail Corridors Movement: Ready for Prime Time," keynoted by Amtrak Board Vice Chair and former Presidential Candidate Michael S. Dukakis, and by Amtrak Reform Council Chair and former Bush Administration FRA Administrator Gilbert E. Carmichael, July 7-8 in Washington. At that conference will also announced the details of a national competition for the design of low-cost, modular bridging systems for rail crossing elimination.

James P. RePass

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