There are more than 200,000 unique grade crossings nationwide. During normal freight operations, a train can block a crossing for multiple reasons, from weather events to a train slowing to enter or depart a nearby yard. Railroads work closely with community leaders, government partners, first responders and the public to manage and mitigate the community impacts and, when possible, eliminate the crossing altogether.  

To better understand why trains block crossings, we must look back nearly 200 years ago to when Baltimore merchants chartered the first North American railroad – the Baltimore & Ohio. This milestone set off a chain reaction that would forever change our country.

Freight railroads played a crucial role in connecting different regions, facilitating the movement of goods and promoting economic growth. They enabled the efficient transportation of various commodities, such as raw materials, building supplies, agricultural products and manufactured goods. They also moved everything from mail to military supplies and the troops themselves. This expansion of trade and commerce helped stimulate local and national economies.

As railroads connected different areas, communities began to form and thrive alongside the tracks. Towns and cities sprouted along rail lines, providing homes and services to workers and residents. Railroads contributed to urbanization, enabling the establishment of new communities and the growth of existing ones. As these towns grew and developed thanks to freight railroads, local officials built roads and infrastructure to support day-to-day community needs.

This is where the challenges we still face today begin. Railroads allowed the roads to cross the tracks utilizing grade crossings rather than grade separations (which is the norm in populated areas of most other developed regions of the world). The public entities, always eager to save a few taxpayer dollars, readily agreed.

Two Fundamental Shifts: More Concentrated Freight Volumes & Population Density Growth

Community planning and development policy often encourage new construction in areas where the existing infrastructure is limited, and public funding can’t provide more than the bare bones of the facilities necessary to support the growth of those areas. As these areas expanded into areas close to existing rail operations, the need to build infrastructure to support the families and businesses the development attracted grew – and the dollars to support that public infrastructure did not keep pace. Public officials made the only choice available, which was to build for today instead of for future growth.

Over the same period, rail traffic has been concentrated along fewer, more productive and efficient lanes while the population has boomed adjacent to those lanes. These two fundamental shifts – more concentrated freight volumes and population density growth – have resulted in conflicting demands for the use of the infrastructure at grade crossings.

There was a different path available, but it would have required long-term planning and sizeable public investment. When it comes to how rail operations intersect with public infrastructure, the U.S. stands alone compared to other developed nations. Those other countries with policies that have funded grade separations early on have reaped the advantages of fewer crossings, including greater public safety and safer and more efficient train operations. As time has gone on, the cost of following the lead of other nations has continued to compound.

Railroad-driven Mitigation Strategies

Railroads recognize their responsibility to safely move the goods and materials that power our economy while minimizing the impact on local communities. Simply put, a stopped train isn’t good for drivers, pedestrians or rail customers. That’s why railroads make massive private investments each year into technologies and operational changes to minimize the frequency of blocked crossings, mitigate community impacts, and respond when crossings are blocked and help safeguard pedestrians and drivers.

While each crossing and community is different, railroads have employed varied approaches to reduce potential impacts. From adding pedestrian infrastructure to enhance public safety to installing early warning devices that empower drivers to choose alternative routes, railroads work with communities to find solutions that keep people and traffic safely moving. In some instances, railroads have even altered their operations to off hours to reduce impacts on the motoring public and pedestrians.

By adding or relocating siding, railroads can often alleviate crossing impacts. By extending siding, railroads can accommodate train movements and modern operations with less impact on local communities. When siding extensions are appropriate, they can serve as win-win solutions that accommodate future freight growth, reduce emissions related to idling and keep trains and cars moving. While these types of projects can be accomplished through public-private partnerships, railroads typically are the primary funders for siding extension and relocation projects.

Public Infrastructure Investment is the Solution

Ultimately, the safest grade crossing is no grade crossing at all.  

For many crossings with persistent challenges, the real solution is not a question of technology or operational practices by either railroads or public agencies. The solution is a public infrastructure investment like what has occurred in the rest of the developed world for nearly two centuries. Eliminating the crossing is the only viable path forward in these locations. While no one is suggesting that every crossing should be eliminated, the only solution to successfully resolve the issue at many crossings with persistent challenges are grade separations.

The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program – a first-of-its-kind public/private partnership – includes 25 grade separations. These structures help eliminate the risk of collisions, reduce motorist delays, improve access and minimize idling.

Grade crossings are and always have been a shared responsibility. States, not railroads, are responsible for evaluating grade crossing risks and prioritizing grade crossings for improvement or closure. No one entity can or should shoulder the costs alone.

Traditionally, state departments of transportation have been responsible for funding the infrastructure necessary to keep the motoring public and pedestrians moving safely and unimpeded by rail operations. For these grade separation projects, railroads play a supporting role, typically providing 10% of the funding and ceding portions of their property and right of way to accommodate the new construction.

Railroads appreciate the robust funding Congress included for grade crossing projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which will help states fund up to 80% of these projects using federal funds. Congress provided $600 million per year for the newly-established Railroad Crossing Elimination program while also authorizing $500 million per year for these competitive grants. Since 2005, the total number of public grade crossings has declined by 10%, and the Elimination Program will help drive this number down further.

There is still more work to be done to eliminate crossings, keep communities connected and maintain the safe movement of freight across the nation. Railroads are committed to continued partnership with federal, state and local officials to find solutions that reduce operational impacts to the communities we serve.