July 05, 2007
Increased safety at railroad crossings is a good thing

Unfortunately, I'm sure this story will be met with another uproar about irresponsible parenting:

Weeks after his daughter, niece and two of their friends crashed into a train and died, Doug Moyers is readying himself for a mission: upgrading safety measures at rail crossings.

"I'm going to become an expert in this, and we're going out to save some lives," he said.

He could find himself rather busy.

Roughly half of the nearly 1,800 at-grade, or street-level, crossings in the Houston area, like the East Archer location where the teens died June 14, have only "passive" safety devices that are not train-activated. These include "stop," "yield" or "crossing ahead" signs, pavement markings and street lighting.

There are 25 crossings in the Texas Department of Transportation's six-county Houston District that federal officials have approved for "active" signalization -- flashing lights and crossing arms.

I think the Chron made a mistake in linking this too closely to last month's story about the SUV-train crash. That story was met with too little sympathy and too much blame placed on the parents. Looking at some of the comments on the story, it looks like that same discussion was started up again.

Railroads consider at-grade crossings "an opportunity for something bad to happen" and applaud their elimination, Union Pacific Railroad spokesman Joe Arbona said.

TxDOT recommends about 15 crossings a year for improvements in the Houston district, ranking them with a formula that considers vehicle and train traffic, maximum train speed, types of warning devices in place and the crossing's five-year crash history.

Arbona noted that installing flashing signals at an at-grade crossing cannot guarantee safety as long as some drivers ignore the warnings.

"More than half of accidents happen at places where you have signal lights," he said.

However, a driver has to go to some trouble to crash through a crossing arm or deliberately go around it. All 25 of the approved upgrades call for gate arms.

[TxDOT spokeswoman Janelle] Gbur said the number of crossings equipped annually with flashers or gate arms depends largely on the federal money available. The combined state and federal funds for Texas total about $35 million a year, and it costs about $170,000 per crossing to add the lights and arms, she said.

The crux of this story is that railroad crossings are going to be safer - something that happens every year, according to the Chron. I don't think anybody disagrees with improving safety at street-level crossings, but that point is obscured by the controversy over the teens who stole the SUV. That story really shouldn't have raised all the hype it did in the first place, but that's a month ago.

Posted by Alexandria Ragsdale on July 05, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston