In 2018, MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) noticed a disconcerting trend that spurred them to action.
Data showed a significant uptick in incidents at grade crossings, where train tracks intersect pedestrian paths or roads. And the trend showed no sign of slowing. Two years later, through an innovative partnership, LIRR has achieved dramatic improvement in grade crossing safety, virtually eliminating accidents involving motorist on their tracks.
Grade Crossings: Where Railroads and the Public Intersect
There are approximately 200,000 highway-rail grade crossings in America. These grade crossings, which bring trains into close proximity to drivers and pedestrians, have been a major area of focus for America’s railroads. Between 2000 and 2020, industry investments on safety enhancements and public education initiatives have reduced grade crossing collisions by 46%. While this is a strong improvement, railroads continue to strive toward their ultimate goal: zero accidents. “If we save only one life from this effort, it’s going to be worth it,” said Long Island Rail Road President Phillip Eng.
The Genesis of an Innovative Partnership
Grade crossings are of particular concern for LIRR, which runs nearly 750 trains each day in Long Island — many of which pass through the island’s hundreds of grade crossings. When the first few months of 2018 brought a significant increase in passenger vehicles on the tracks — 21 by May compared to 29 for all of 2017 — LIRR knew it had to move swiftly.
The railroad began by making changes to its own infrastructure. People reported difficulty seeing the grade crossings in inclement weather, so LIRR implemented improvements to boost visibility and alter motorist behavior including flexible delineators and reflectorized markers at each of the nearly 300 crossings.
“We were seeing progress based on the delineators and the other physical changes we were making, but it didn’t feel like enough,” LIRR President Phillip Eng recounts. “So we kept digging, looking at the data to see if there was another way we could get an edge. We told ourselves: If we save only one life from this effort, it’s going to be worth it.”
In reviewing incident records, LIRR noticed something new: an increase in drivers reporting that they had turned onto railroad tracks while trying to follow directions from a navigation app. One driver even reported that her app had told her to turn onto the tracks, treating them like a normal road. This new problem, while concerning, also presented a potential solution: working with navigation apps to ensure grade crossings were clearly and accurately noted could help increase driver awareness and safety, particularly for drivers who were not familiar with the area. Among such apps, Waze stood out as a company that had already worked with LIRR’s partners in other modes of infrastructure. LIRR reached out to the company to figure out what a partnership could look like.
Making the Partnership Real
Working together, LIRR and Waze set their sights on the development of a safety feature that alerts Waze app users to upcoming grade crossings. The beginning of the project was not easy, requiring significant time and resources. It was a manual and highly labor-intensive process to input the grade crossing data and program the alerts. However, thanks to its enterprise asset management systems, LIRR had a wealth of GIS location data that helped facilitate and expedite the process, providing Waze with the precise locations of each grade crossing.
The project wouldn’t have been possible without the intense efforts of both LIRR and Waze staff, says Lori Ebbighausen, LIRR’s vice president of corporate safety. “It wasn’t the most exciting work – a lot of data entry and programming that had to be done very carefully, painstakingly, because a small mistake could have major safety ramifications,” she explains. “But we knew that if we put in the work, and we did it right, the benefits would be incalculable.”
LIRR saw immediate improvements following the launch. Combined with the new infrastructure efforts, the previous issue of drivers accidentally turning onto tracks have been virtually eliminated, with a Federal Railroad Administration study finding that LIRR’s effort resulted in a stunning 85% reduction in such incidents in the first year alone. The alerts provide an important layer of safety to LIRR’s other measures including TRACKS, a public education program developed to teach kids rail about safety.
A Scalable Solution
While the LIRR/Waze partnership was the first of its kind, it will hopefully be the first of many. In the years since, other railroads, including Norfolk Southern, have partnered with Waze on their own projects. The initial work done by LIRR and Waze now means it is easier for other railroads to plug in their own location data, with most of the work now happening automatically with little manual input required.
These alerts are just one part of the industry’s ongoing effort to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, grade crossing incidents. Railroads continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain grade crossings and education efforts as well as engage in major public-private infrastructure projects that eliminate grade crossings entirely by building bridges or tunnels to separate roads to rails.
Technology is changing the world, and railroads are changing with it. The Waze partnership with LIRR demonstrates that while new technologies can create stumbling blocks, close communication between stakeholders and creative thinking can turn the technology from a problem into part of the solution. Through this spirit of collaboration, railroads continue to innovate to make America’s rail network even safer.