Editorial: Where is federal oversight of private crossings?

Posted on August 11, 2016

Private rail crossings are the forgotten stepchild in the federal government's oversight of railroad safety.

Public rail crossings must adhere to a bevy of regulations. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration credits the steep decline in incidents at public crossings — 60 percent over the past two decades — to the implementation of mandatory safety upgrades.

By contrast, little is required in the way of signage and warning devices at private rail crossings.

Equally troubling is the fact there is almost no federal oversight of these vehicle/train intersections.

For example, as Treasure Coast Newspapers' investigative reporter Lucas Daprile discovered, railroads weren't even required to report locations, ownership and the number/speed of trains at private crossings until March 2015. They still don't have to report warning devices, average daily traffic or whether school buses cross these intersections.

Why does this matter?

Nationwide, there are about 400 incidents resulting in more than 30 fatalities at private rail-grade crossings each year. On the Treasure Coast, there have been at least seven crashes at private crossings, two of them fatal, since 1980.

The 25 private crossings in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, some of which allow public access, are exempt from nearly all government regulations and oversight.

Two reforms would improve public safety at private rail crossings:

1. Increase federal oversight of private rail crossings.

This should include updating information in the Federal Railroad Administration database to accurately assess risk factors at these crossings, and then mandating safety devices at select private crossings that warrant upgrades.

2. Make federal rail grants available for private crossings.

In 2016, the federal government allocated $350 million to improve grade-crossing safety. However, this money — known as Section 130 funds — is prohibited by statute for use on private crossings.

Why not make a portion of these funds available for private crossings?

Let's be clear: The Editorial Board of Treasure Coast Newspapers isn't advocating for outrageously expensive safety upgrades to all private rail crossings. However, private crossings that allow public access — and experience a high number of daily trains — are candidates for greater federal oversight and investment.

Where to start? The seven private crossings in our region on the Florida East Coast rail line, which will begin carrying All Aboard Florida/Brightline passenger trains by late 2017.

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