September 23, 2021

Railroad crossings require extra precautions, good judgment


Beware of elevated crossings that can leave you stranded on the tracks

Following a fatal collision between a tractor-trailer and freight train in Houston earlier this month, drivers are urged to take extra precautions when approaching railroad crossings.

The accident occured when a Kansas City Southern train collided with a truck, resulting in the death of the truck driver, the company said in a statement.

The truck burst into flames upon impact, however, the crew on board the train was not injured. The incident is under investigation.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a tweet, “It appears the truck driver was parked on the tracks, in line with other vehicles, waiting for the traffic when the train was approaching.”

Brian Runnels, Reliance Partners’ vice president of safety, said it’s a worst-case scenario for drivers to find themselves a sitting duck on the tracks when stuck in traffic.

“I don’t know if the traffic light caught him by surprise or something like that, but drivers should never stop on a train track,” Runnels said.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, under 49 CFR 392.10, drivers of commercial motor vehicles must stop within 50 feet of but not closer than 15 feet to the tracks. Drivers must then look in each direction along the tracks for an approaching train before discerning whether it’s safe to cross, and may only cross in a gear that allows the vehicle to clear the crossing without having to change gears.

Instances in which tracks can be crossed without following such protocols include when the track is marked as abandoned or when an industrial or spur line railroad grade crossing is marked by an “Exempt” sign erected by the consent of the appropriate state or local authority.

Among other exceptions listed, a stop need not be made when a police officer or flagman directs traffic to proceed or when a railroad grade crossing controlled by a functioning highway traffic signal is transmitting a green indication.

Despite the rules, however, collisions between trucks and trains continue to make headlines. More often than not, it comes down to poor judgment on behalf of the driver.

A trucker last month in Greeneville, Tennessee, blamed a bush for blocking his view when he made the decision to pull out in front of a train. No one was injured in the ensuing collision.

In a more serious case, a lack of judgment resulted in a train derailment near Fremont, Nebraska, earlier this month. A side dump trailer hauling dirt failed to clear the tracks in time when it was struck by a Union Pacific train.

No one was injured, but the truck and trailer were deemed total losses. The derailed train was expected to be on the track for an “undetermined” amount of time until Union Pacific can get the train back on, a Dodge County sheriff’s deputy said at the time.

Recounting his time on the road, the veteran Runnels spoke of his experience dealing with train tracks. He said it all comes down to your adeptness at gauging distance. Do you have enough space to clear the track in this traffic without getting stuck?

“Make sure your landing gear is all the way up, and pay attention to your surroundings” when approaching railroad crossings, Runnels urged. “If there’s a rise in the concrete, see if it’s all gouged and tore up.”

Runnels said that scratch marks in the pavement are a good indicator that the crossing has a history of beaching trucks. Many train crossings are elevated to an extent above the roadway, which can spell trouble for low-hanging equipment like trailers’ landing gear, posing a snagging risk on the hill.

The problem isn’t so much that the landing gear is stuck, but that it vaults the vehicle just far enough off the ground that the drive tires cannot gain traction, Runnels explained. The predicament makes it hard to move the truck either forward or backward.

“Some trailers have landing gear that doesn’t go up as high as other ones,” Runnels said. “I’ve had landing gear hanging 16 to 18 inches off the ground, while others have been perched barely 10 to 12 inches off the ground, leaving you without a lot of leeway for going over something like tracks.”

“Drivers must always roll up the landing gear as far as it’ll go; never leave the landing gear down.”