Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Testimony before the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation United States Senate Regarding Grade Crossing Safety
Jim Hall
United States Senate, Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Regarding Grade Crossing Safety, Washington, DC

as presented:

Good morning, Chairwoman Hutchison and members of the subcommittee. I am honored to represent the National Transportation Safety Board before you today to provide you with information on the tragedy that occurred last week in Bourbonnais, Illinois and our perspective on highway-rail grade crossing safety.

A full accounting of the Safety Board's activities regarding grade crossing safety is included in my testimony submitted for the record. My oral testimony will focus on the facts and safety issues emerging from our investigation of the Bourbonnais accident.

On March 15, 1999, at about 9:47 p.m., Amtrak's City of New Orleans, travelling from Chicago, Illinois, to New Orleans, Louisiana, collided with a semi-trailer loaded with steel bars in the village of Bourbonnais. The grade crossing was equipped with gates and flashing lights.

The train carried 219 passengers and crew. Eleven passengers, all located in a sleeper car, were fatally injured. Included in the fatalities were four members of a group from Mississippi travelling home from a trip to a Chicago toy store. The group included three girls aged 8, 10, and 11 and the grandmother of one of the girls.

About 117 passengers and crew received injuries in the accident including the engineer of Train 59. Of the 117 injured, 50 were admitted to local hospitals and 67 were treated and released. The driver of the truck was unhurt.

The Amtrak train consisted of 2 locomotives and 14 cars. Twelve of the 14 cars derailed and both locomotives turned on their side and a diesel fuel fire ensued. The truck involved in the accident was a 48-foot-long flat bed semi-trailer carrying 37,000 pounds of 60-foot-long, 1-inch diameter steel reinforcing rod. The load overhung the trailer by 7 feet in the rear and 5 feet in the front.

Event recorder data was recovered from the first Amtrak locomotive. The 23-parameter event recorder indicated that the Amtrak train was travelling at 79 miles per hour, the maximum allowable track speed, just before the accident. The event recorder also indicated that the engineer was blowing the horn for the crossing and that the brakes were applied before the collision.

Event recorder data was also recovered from the grade crossing signal equipment. The event recorder indicated that grade crossing lights activated 26 seconds, and gates began to descend 22 seconds, before the train reached the crossing. According to Safety Board tests conducted after the accident, it takes about 8 seconds for the gates to move from the vertical to the horizontal position.

The driver indicated in his initial statement that he crossed the grade crossing in 6th gear at about 22 mph and that the lights activated as he went across. The driver's initial statement does not agree with the signal event recorder information. The Safety Board is interviewing other eyewitnesses to the accident, including the locomotive engineer, to help determine what actually happened.

The Bourbonnais accident should not have happened, and this accident has raised a number of issues. In particular, the accident highlights possible shortcomings of the commercial driver licensing system. The truck driver involved in the Bourbonnais accident had been issued several speeding tickets over the last three years, including at least three while he was driving a commercial truck. During an adjudication hearing, the State of Illinois replaced the trucker's commercial driver's license with a sixty-day probationary license. While the truck driver managed to avoid further traffic violations during the probationary period, this accident occurred just ten days before he was to have his commercial license restored.

The extent to which the truck driver's driving tendencies may have caused last week's accident remains undetermined at this time. However, the fact that this driver was still operating a 74,000-pound commercial truck deserves scrutiny. Given the federal guidelines that are presently in place, it is surprising that he had been allowed to keep his commercial driver's license.

These and other issues will be developed as the Safety Board completes its investigation.

On a personal note, today you will hear that collisions between trains and vehicles or pedestrians at highway grade crossings are far too common. You will also hear about many possible solutions to this problem. However, I doubt that anything you will hear today is new. These are ideas that have been studied and talked about for many years. Unfortunately, the programs we currently have in place to improve grade crossing safety will not prevent accidents like that in Bourbonnais. If we want to prevent this type of accident in the future, we must increase resources applied to the grade crossing problem. We owe it to our citizens - who are entitled to safe transportation - and we owe it to the memory of the victims of the Bourbonnais accident.

Madam Chairwoman, that completes my testimony. I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

for the record:


Good morning, Chairwoman Hutchison and members of the subcommittee. It is a pleasure to represent the National Transportation Safety Board before you today and to provide you with our perspective on the topic of highway-rail grade crossing safety.

Collisions between trains and vehicles or pedestrians at highway grade crossings are far too common. The 1998 data indicate that every 160 minutes, a collision between a train and a car or truck occurs at one of the more than 259,000 highway/rail grade crossings that exist in the United States. In fact, within a 3-day period following the accident in Bourbonnais, Illinois, the Safety Board was notified of 10 additional accidents in which 3 persons died.

Although Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) preliminary data show a decrease in the number of fatalities from 419 in 1997 to 361 in 1998, these numbers are still unacceptable. (Figure A attached shows the number of fatalities from grade crossing accidents involving motor vehicles, 1975-1998; Figure A-1 attached shows fatalities by State for 1998; Figure B attached shows the number of grade crossing accidents involving motor vehicles, 1975-1998.) Further, train miles have steadily increased in the last few years, from 577 million train miles in 1991 to 681 million train miles in 1998. Highway motor vehicle miles have also steadily increased. (Figures C, D, and E attached.) Those factors coupled with the amount of hazardous materials being shipped daily by both trucks and rail-3.7 million tons by truck, and about 380,000 tons by rail-cause the Safety Board to remain concerned about grade crossing safety.

The most recent grade crossing tragedy being investigated by the Safety Board is the accident that occurred March 15, 1999, in which southbound Amtrak train 59 (The City of New Orleans) struck a tractor-semitrailer at an active grade crossing in Bourbonnais, Illinois, about 50 miles south of Chicago. This accident resulted in 11 fatalities and more than 100 injuries to traincrew and passengers, again highlighting the need for aggressive action to reduce or eliminate these accidents. The Bourbonnais accident should not have happened. Nor should the more than 3,000 plus accidents that occur annually at the Nation's highway-grade crossings.

This accident has raised a number of specific issues of interest to the Safety Board. In particular, the accident highlights possible shortcomings of the commercial driver licensing system. The truck driver involved in the Bourbonnais accident had been issued several speeding tickets over the last three years, including at least three while he was driving a commercial truck. During an adjudication hearing, the state of Illinois replaced the trucker's commercial driver's license with a 60-day probationary license. While the truck driver managed to avoid further traffic violations during the probationary period, Amtrak's City of New Orleans struck his vehicle just ten days before he was to have his commercial license restored. The extent to which the truck driver's driving tendencies may have caused last week's accident remains undetermined at this time. However, the fact that this driver was still operating a 74,000 pound commercial truck deserves scrutiny.

The Commercial Driver's Licensing program was created as a result of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986, enacted to ensure "that drivers of large trucks and buses are qualified to operate those vehicles and to remove unsafe and unqualified drivers from the highways." Since 1992, drivers operating vehicles over 26,000 pounds gross weight have been required to have, in their possession, a commercial driver's license conforming with standards established by the Federal Highway Administration.

Under this plan, States retained the right to issue commercial driver's licenses, but each licensing program was required to conform with minimum Federal standards. The standards impose strict proficiency testing requirements on the operators of large commercial vehicles in order to ensure that each driver is sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled to operate their particular motor vehicle in a safe fashion. In addition, Federal standards require that drivers who are convicted of traffic offenses while operating a commercial vehicle have their licenses suspended.

Given the Federal guidelines that are presently in place, it is surprising that the truck driver involved in the Bourbonnais accident had been allowed to keep his commercial driver's license. One matter of interest to the Safety Board is the extent to which Illinois State law, rather than Federal highway regulations, was used as the basis for the decision allowing the driver to keep his commercial driver's license on a probationary basis.

Another concern involves the responsibility of the carrier, Melco Transfer, Incorporated, to monitor the driver's record. Drivers are required to report traffic violations to their employer within 30 days of a conviction, regardless of the type of vehicle being driven at the time of the offense. It is presently unknown whether the driver informed his employer of the traffic convictions, as required. It is also unknown whether the employer sought this information on their own on some kind of recurring basis.

Mr. Chairman, the Safety Board's concern regarding grade crossing safety goes back many years, and since the Board's creation in 1967, we have investigated more than 400 grade-crossing accidents and conducted several studies on grade crossing safety. Those studies include:

In 1981, the Board issued a safety effectiveness evaluation on the improvement of nighttime conspicuity of railroad trains.

In that same year, we issued a special study on grade crossing accidents involving trucks transporting bulk hazardous materials-a topic that I'll come back to in a few minutes.

In 1985, the Board conducted a grade crossing review for calendar years 1983 and 1984.

In 1986, the Board completed a safety study on passenger/commuter train and motor vehicle collisions at grade crossings.

Based on the results of these accident investigations and studies, the Safety Board has issued about 100 safety recommendations relevant to grade crossings. These recommendations have resulted in many improvements to grade crossing safety.

One such improvement was prompted in 1972 when the Union Pacific Railroad created a program, Operation Lifesaver (OL), that brought Idaho State agencies and the railroad together to address grade crossing safety through public education. The Safety Board recognized the value of these efforts, and in 1977 issued a safety recommendation that asked the National Safety Council to serve as the coordinator for the development, implementation, and evaluation of a nationwide OL railroad-highway grade crossing program. Primarily as a result of the Safety Board's recommendation and aggressive followup, by the mid-1980s, 48 States had established OL programs. In 1986, the national program was established as an independent nonprofit organization, and it currently operates with a budget of about $1 million, half of which is funded by the Federal government.

Other grade crossing improvements were initiated after the Safety Board investigated accidents at Intercession City, Florida, and in Sycamore, South Carolina, where large, low-riding trucks became lodged on the tracks at passive grade crossings and were struck by passenger trains. These investigations led the Safety Board to recommend improved signs to warn drivers of the hazards presented by high profile (hump) crossings, and that railroads implement 24-hour toll-free emergency telephone systems that motorists can use to warn the railroads when a hazardous condition exists at a crossing. As a result of these recommendations, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) added a new sign to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices to warn of a hump crossing, and several States and railroads are installing signs at all grade crossings that provide an emergency phone number.

In addition to these activities, the Safety Board has issued other recommendations over the years that have addressed the night time conspicuity of trains, the clearing of vegetation in the vicinity of crossings, the installation of additional warning devices to be placed at passive crossings awaiting upgrade to active devices, the enforcement of stop signs at grade crossings, and the audibility of train horns.

Clearly, however, as the accident last week reminds us, more can and should be done to eliminate these needless accidents.

As I mentioned earlier, there are more than 259,000 highway/rail crossings in the United States. And more than 195,000 of these are termed "passive crossings;" that is, they do not have the gates and flashing lights like those that were installed at the crossing in Illinois to warn motorists of an approaching train. The measures to improve safety at these types of crossings will necessarily be somewhat different than the measures to improve safety at those crossings equipped with gates and flashing lights.

In 1998, the Safety Board published a study on safety at passive grade crossings and investigated 60 accidents for that study. Although there is generally less highway and train traffic at passive crossings than at active crossings, passive crossings have accounted for more than 50 percent of all grade crossing accidents and as much as 60 percent of all grade crossing fatalities.

Yet at these more than 195,000 crossings, motorists are provided no warning of the approach of a train beyond their ability to either see or hear the approaching train. In many instances, the only indication that a motorist has that a crossing is even present is a crossbuck sign located a few feet on either side of the crossing. In some instances, there are no signs at all. Although a railroad advance warning sign is required, our investigation of the 60 accidents found that in more than half of the cases, the signs were missing.

The motorist's ability to see an approaching train is often hindered by the physical characteristics of the highway-rail grade crossing, such as vegetation, the angle at which the roadway meets the railroad tracks, curves in either the road or the tracks, or other sight obstructions, such as buildings.

The motorist's ability to hear an approaching train is also affected by both vehicle design and environmental factors. We know all too well from accidents, including the 1995 Fox River Grove, Illinois, grade crossing accident in which 7 school bus passengers were killed and 24 were seriously injured, that audible warning devices on trains fail to meet their objective of alerting motorists to an oncoming train.

Obviously, an approach to safety at passive grade crossings that depends solely on a motorist's ability to see or hear an approaching train is archaic and needs to be changed.

In its 1998 study the Safety Board outlined a systematic approach to improving safety at these passive crossings-an approach that includes grade separation and closure, installation of active warning devices, improved signage, and intelligent transportation systems technology. This approach includes both immediate and long-term measures and incorporates aspects of engineering, education, and enforcement.

As part of this systematic approach, the Safety Board has been interested in the methods used to evaluate the level of safety available at a State's grade crossings. Currently, each State selects its own method or formula to determine a hazard index for use as a basis in assigning funding priorities for grade crossings. A survey of States conducted by Auburn University in 1994 indicated that more than half of the 41 responding States rely on methods or formulas that do not include such factors as sight distance, crossing angle nearby or other factors that appear to affect grade crossing safety. As a result of the Safety Board's 1998 passive grade crossing safety study, the Safety Board recommended that the Department of Transportation should develop a standardized hazard index or a safety prediction formula that will include all variables proven by research or experience to be useful in evaluating highway-rail grade.

Ideally, either closing crossings so they no longer exist or separating the rail traffic from the highway traffic through bridges and overpasses is the most effective means to eliminate accidents between highway vehicles and trains. The Safety Board strongly supports the FRA's goal to reduce the number of grade crossings through separation and closure by 25 percent by the year 2001. (Figure F attached shows the percent reduction in the number of grade crossings from 1991 through 1998.) We also believe that the grade crossings on the high-speed passenger lines should be targeted first for separation or closure, as has occurred on the Northeast Corridor. As such, the Board is pleased that Section 1103 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century (TEA-21), which increased from 5 to 11 the number of designated high-speed rail corridors, also increased funding for grade crossing hazard elimination on these corridors. This funding is available for a variety of hazard reduction strategies, including installation or improvement of warning devices, or grade crossing separation and closure. On the tracks over which Amtrak operates, it is estimated that there are more than 15,000 crossings.

The FHWA and the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) provide guidance to assist highway engineers in the physical and geometric design of safe roadway systems. However, the Safety Board's 1998 study found that characteristics at 54 of the 60 study accident crossings failed to adhere to at least one of these guidelines. We believe that States should initiate activity to bring crossings into compliance with these guidelines. For those crossings that cannot be brought into compliance, the States should target those crossings for separation, closure, or installation of active warning devices.

If separation (which usually involves construction of bridges or overpasses and costs an estimated $3 million per crossing) or closure is not possible, the next most desirable method to improve safety at passive crossings is to equip those crossings with active devices that warn the motorist of an oncoming train. However, as the accident at Bourbonnais, Illinois, illustrates the existence of flashing lights and gates does not guarantee that an accident can be prevented. Many of the accidents at active crossings have involved highway vehicle drivers who did not comply with train-activated warning devices installed at the crossings. This failure to comply often includes deliberate driver decisions, such as driving around a lowered crossing gate arm or ignoring flashing lights. Because of these deliberate actions, the Safety Board believes strong consideration should be given to installation of devices that will prevent a motorist from driving around the lowered gates, such as four-quadrant gates or median barriers.

The Safety Board recognizes that not all passive grade crossings will be upgraded in the near future with active warning devices which cost about $150,000 per crossing. In the interim, at a minimum, motorists should be provided with some uniform information about what action is needed and adequate time to react accordingly. A cross buck sign located a few feet on either side of the railroad tracks is not adequate. The Safety Board has recommended, therefore, as an immediate interim measure, the installation of stop and stop ahead signs at all passive crossings, unless a traffic engineering analysis determines that the installation of a stop sign would reduce the level of safety.

A long-term solution to eliminating passive crossings and reducing collisions between highway and rail vehicles, in the Safety Board's opinion, will be provided by intelligent transportation systems (ITS) that will alert the motorists to the presence of a train.

Components of ITS that are applicable to grade crossings include in-vehicle safety advisory and warning systems (IVSAWS) that use modern telecommunications technology to broadcast a warning to specially equipped highway vehicles. These IVSAW systems consist of a device to detect the presence of a train (this may be a transmitter on the locomotive, or a detection circuit at trackside) that sends a signal to a transceiver at the grade crossing, which, in turn, sends a signal to the receiver in the car or truck.

The IVSAW systems are intended to be more than a warning about trains. The ultimate objective of this part of the ITS is to design a system to warn drivers about numerous dangers on the roadway. When fully implemented, these in-vehicle warning systems could warn drivers about such things as the approach of police or emergency vehicles, the presence of a stopped school bus, and the approach of a train at a crossing. Given this multiple functionality, it will also be necessary to ensure that the driver can easily determine which hazard to look for. Guidelines and specifications for appropriate visual displays and audible messages are currently being developed.

ITS applications cost far less than installing lights and gates and can help convert passive crossings into active crossings. For the train detection and transmitting equipment for IVSAWS at each crossing, most cost estimates are below $5,000 per crossing. As noted earlier, it costs about $150,000 per crossing for standard warning devices. Depending on the cost of the ITS infrastructure, it is likely that the cost of ITS technology will be less than that for standard active warning devices. The Safety Board supports efforts to encourage development of ITS applications.

However, these in-vehicle warning systems will incur, as a rule, a direct cost to the driver of each highway vehicle, who must either purchase and install an aftermarket device or pay extra for the system to be installed in a new car. Because the system works best when every vehicle on the road carries the receiver, the practicality of these devices will depend on their near-universal availability in highway vehicles. Currently, estimated prices for the receivers range from about $50 up to $250.

The Safety Board believes that other ITS solutions not requiring in-vehicle warning systems, such as signs or signals that can alert a motorist to the presence of a train without depending on expensive track circuitry, may also be possible. Less complex ITS applications have been proposed by the FHWA for use at grade crossings, including variable message signs and roadside beacons activated by wireless communications signals emitted by train detection equipment.

Given the potential of ITS to reduce accidents at passive crossings and that several systems have proven effective, the Safety Board believes that efforts to test and implement these systems should be a high priority. Therefore, the Safety Board has recommended that the DOT (1) develop and implement a field test program for the in-vehicle warning systems, variable message signs, and other active devices, and then (2) ensure that the private entities who are developing advanced technology applications modify those applications as appropriate for use at passive grade crossings. Following the modifications, the DOT should take action to implement use of the advanced technology applications. Because of the multimodal nature of this technology, the Safety Board believes that it would be prudent for the modal administrations-including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the FHWA, and the FRA-and the various associations-including AASHTO, the Association of American Railroads, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, and the American Public Transit Association-to participate and cooperate fully with the ITS development.

Two other critical components for an effective grade crossing improvement plan include education and enforcement.

The Safety Board's 1998 study indicated that the motoring public does not clearly understand the level of risk at passive crossings. Many motorists fail to realize that the engineer of a 150-car train traveling at 50 miles per hour has very few options and that even if the train's emergency brakes are applied, it will take the train about 1 1/2 miles to stop. Applying the train's brakes in an emergency could also have serious ramifications, particularly if there is a derailment or accident of a tank car full of chlorine or a flammable gas, as examples, rounding a curve in a populated area 1/2 mile behind the locomotive. The Safety Board fully supports OL and other efforts to provide information about grade crossing safety to drivers. These organizations must continue to address the unique dangers of railroad grade crossings.

In addition, conferences and seminars are held throughout the year that focus on grade crossing engineering technology, advances in communication-based train control initiatives, and the current status of ITS initiatives. Safety Board staff regularly attend and support these conferences, and we believe such activities are crucial to reducing and eliminating accidents at the Nation's grade crossings. One upcoming conference, I wish to point out, will be held in October on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

The Safety Board is aware that OL organizations and local law enforcement agencies in several States have completed some innovative law enforcement that address enforcement of motorists' compliance with grade crossing warning devices. These efforts are primarily targeted at locations with active warning devices, but they have also addressed enforcement of stop signs at passive crossings. These programs include "Trooper on the Train," "Officer on the Train," or "Operation Stopgate." Generally, the rail corridors targeted for these enforcement trains are selected because of high accident rates and the number of highway vehicle drivers who do not comply with active and passive warning devices. For the most part, these programs follow the same basic format: law enforcement officers are placed on the train and at stationary locations on either side of the grade crossings that are targeted for the program. Highway vehicle operators who do not comply with the lowered arm of a crossing gate and/or a flashing light or stop sign, and to a much lesser degree the crossbuck sign, are stopped by law enforcement officers and are ticketed. These programs also include video cameras that record the actions of the highway vehicle driver crossing in front of the train. The Safety Board encourages OL and the States to continue such innovative approaches to enforcement.

That completes my testimony, Madame Chairwoman. I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

Chairman Hall's Speeches