Chair Cantwell Releases Report on Safety and Congestion Challenges Facing At-Grade Railroad Crossings

Report finds current federal programs are inadequate to address needs of nation’s 210,000 highway-railroad crossings

March 24, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, released a report studying and assessing safety and efficiency concerns at at-grade railroad crossings. The report, previewed by Chair Cantwell during today’s committee hearing on transportation infrastructure, finds that current federal programs are not sufficient to address these pressing issues of safety and congestion.

“To better support local community efforts to solve problematic highway-rail grade crossing problems,” the report concludes, “specific federal funding is needed to support both the planning and construction of costly grade separation or track relocation projects that eliminate crossings. Congress must include new funding for railroad-grade separation projects in any upcoming infrastructure or surface reauthorization legislation.”

Rail is an essential component in the transportation of goods and people throughout the country. Moreover, rail is an environmentally friendly means of moving freight. As the U.S. relies ever more on this mainstay of transportation, problems with the nation’s 210,000 highway-railroad crossings will need to be addressed.

Current grade crossing incidents account for 30 percent of railroad-related fatalities. These incidents also have far reaching economic effects through medical costs, property damage, congestion, and loss of productivity. It is estimated that highway-railroad crossing incidents result in $1.7 billion in damages each year. Trains can sometimes stop at crossings for hours. In 2020, there were nearly 1,800 reported instances of a crossing being blocked for over one hour, and 85 of those instances involved the train occupying the crossing for an entire day. Occupied crossings can have negative effects on communities, three real-life examples of which are included in the report:

  • In Davis, Oklahoma, it took police about 20 minutes to respond to a person threatening suicide, even though the person was less than three blocks from the police station, because all three highway-rail crossings in the town were occupied by a stopped train.
  • In Edmonds, Washington, a train blocked all waterfront access for three hours, requiring first responders to crawl through a rail car to respond to several people with medical emergencies, including a pregnant woman due to give birth.
  • In Valley, Nebraska, firefighters were prevented from responding to a house fire on Christmas morning for over an hour because an occupied crossing prevented them from reaching the home.

The report uses Chair Cantwell’s home state of Washington as a case study. In 2017, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) analyzed all 2,180 public highway-railroad crossings in the state.

After identifying the 50 highest-priority crossings, WSDOT found that these 50 crossings were occupied by a train for an average of two hours each day. Two-thirds of theses crossings are near emergency service providers, increasing the likelihood that an occupied crossing will lead to a delay in emergency response. And more than half of the crossings have no planned project to address the safety or congestion issues.

This report follows today’s Commerce Committee hearing on surface transportation infrastructure where Senator Cantwell identified three top priorities for the infrastructure plan, “To me, three things are very clear. One, Congress must provide funds to invest in mega projects that are important to our nation and to regional economies. Second, we've already seen that freight and infrastructure programs have helped our economy be more economically efficient, but more needs to be done. If we can ease the congestion on our roadways, and at rail crossings, and our ports, it only helps our economy grow. And third, I believe we need to do more on helping at-grade crossings, particularly because of rail congestion.”