Hooniverse Asks: How to prevent car-vs-train collisions?

There was a train accident in Long Island last night. A train heading east, leaving the Westbury station struck a vehicle. The vehicle was at a grade crossing. In the anticipation of the upcoming train, the gates were lowered at that crossing but the driver went around the lowered gates. After the initial impact, a second, westbound train hit the damaged vehicle for the second time. That train then derailed as it was approaching the station.

That second train, after it derailed, crashed into the station, specifically the reinforced concrete high platform which are typical on LIRR territory. This concrete platform impaled the train and sheered through at least the first car. Three people died in the vehicle that was struck. Unbelievably, only seven passengers were transported to hospitals with non-life treating injuries. The engineer of the second train simply got lucky. Delays and service cancellations were, still are, and will continue to be significant.

It is my opinion that the worst collisions are those that are easily preventable. In this case it seems that it was the poor judgement of truck driver that lead to this crash.

When I’m not writing about cars for this here website, I work in the transportation industry. In my twenty years of experience I worked on airports, subway, and commuter rail projects. I know enough about buses and locomotives to be dangerous. For a brief period of time I was an automotive component test engineer. I have dabbed into security systems design. I have also designed railroad grade crossings.

In all this, I still don’t know how to prevent car versus train accidents at grade crossings. There are strict design standards for grade crossings; the equipment used, the speed of the upcoming trains, the angle at which the road and the tracks intersect, road speed limits – everything is taken into account. And yet, here we are, another deadly train-car accident.

Image source: cpuc.ca.gov

In other parts of the world, four quadrant gates are used. Meaning, that the entire grade crossing is protected from road vehicles potentially entering it. This sounds like a good idea as it would prevent vehicles from entering the area from all directions. But this design prevent trapped vehicles from escaping the grade crossing area. Those also completely shut down the road when the system malfunctions. Because these are fail-safe systems, the gates drop upon system malfunctions. This may prevent emergency vehicle access.

Truth be told, I do not know how to prevent such accidents. One way would be to elevate either tracks or roadways such that there would a bridge in place of a grade crossing. That is expensive and not always possible. Four quadrant gates have their faults, too. Public outreach clearly isn’t working. But I’m open to ideas.

Please don’t drive around lowered gates or flashing lights at grade crossings. When you see an upcoming train, stop. It’s likely that the train is going faster than it seems. The train cannot turn to avoid an obstacle. Trains cannot stop suddenly either – it’s physics, multi-piston Brembos won’t help. That Superman movie lied to you when it showed him stopping the train.

Top image source: twitter.com/LIRRstats

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17 responses to “Hooniverse Asks: How to prevent car-vs-train collisions?”

  1. onrails Avatar
    onrails

    I’ll repost something that Tashanomi made a few months ago: We’re only doing this to ourselves.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f5bdc7e3788c9d88c76e0e1e5c1740538a1691c1b08f330047d145753f399c54.jpg

  2. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar

    “…don’t drive around lowered gates or flashing lights at grade crossings.”

    There’s your answer. Good luck with that.

  3. danleym Avatar
    danleym

    Nothing can prevent stupid people from being stupid, and I dont have much sympathy for the idiot who circumvents the gates. However, they’re not the only person impacted. The engineer will forever live knowing his train killed someone, and will question if he could have changed anything. And then, like in this instance, there’s the 7 passengers hurt, because of someone else’s stupidity.

    The 4 quadrant system seems to make sense. To address a couple of the drawbacks:

    Most firetrucks in the US carry Knox keys that allow access through gates and into buildings around the city. Police and ambulance access to these keys will vary from city to city. Seems easy enough to incorporate this system into a railroad crossing for use in the event of a malfunction. It would delay, but not entirely prevent response in that instance.

    Also, as far as the trapped car possibility. Drop the set of arms on the approach side 10-15 seconds before the departure side, allowing cars to clear. Have sensors to detect a car on the tracks, which would leave the departure side gates open until the car clears. Hell, if you want to go really big picture and force the entire industry to change, those sensors that detect a car on the tracks could automatically trigger the train to start braking.

    Those steps would probably reduce the number of collisions at crossings, but you’ll never eliminate them, because people will find a way to express their stupidity against all odds.

  4. Jeff M Avatar
    Jeff M

    You can’t legislate against stupidity. There will always be assholes and there will always be the entitled. Darwin awards take care of their fair share but these folks are the reason your ladders have a dozen warnings on them. Just watch crash video’s enough and you’ll see the absolute stupidest things done by drivers world ’round (including lots of train smashes). “Common-sense ain’t common” – Will, and “There’s a sucker born every minute” attrib’ to P.T..

  5. Maymar Avatar
    Maymar

    http://www.imcdb.org/i010255.jpg
    Please note, I am not an engineer or designer, and acknowledge I have limited real contributions to this topic (and I do think that once you have made it unquestionably clear that THIS IS A TRAIN CROSSING AND THERE IS A TRAIN THAT WILL BE CROSSING VERY SOON SO DO NOT PROCEED, any other efforts will have less benefit as someone will still try and get around at their own risk).
    That said, bigass ramps at every crossing.

    1. danleym Avatar
      danleym

      Bigass ramps will cause tractor trailers, and buses, and similar long wheelbase vehicles to high center.

  6. onrails Avatar
    onrails

    I’ll repost something that Tanshanomi made a few months ago: We’re only doing this to ourselves.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f5bdc7e3788c9d88c76e0e1e5c1740538a1691c1b08f330047d145753f399c54.jpg

  7. 0A5599 Avatar
    0A5599

    When I was in college, I lived near train tracks that crossed near the entrance to the neighborhood. The area nearby was being developed, and what used to be a two lane winding road got rerouted into a 4 lane straight shot, that now crossed the tracks about a half mile south of the original crossing. Since our small neighborhood was the only thing reachable from that road in those days before it was extended, the railroad crossing had just a stop sign, with no lights, bells, or mechanical arms.

    The crossing was not perpendicular, so if you looked to your left while heading east, a building blocked the view of the tracks.

    One day, I was heading home and considering running the stop sign at the tracks. Just as I approached the crossing, a train became visible as it passed the building concealing it. The building was only about 50 yards up the track, so the sight of the train, plus the noise (much of which was muffled by the building in the way) came very suddenly to me. I slammed on the brakes, and had it taken me one more car length to notice that train, I would have made contact with it.

    I always stop for trains now.

    1. salguod Avatar

      I drove yesterday through a rural crossing like that. Oddly, not in a remote area all but devoid of traffic, but 30 or so minutes outside of downtown Columbus right near a large metro park. The road had recently been repaved and an intersection maybe a quarter of a mile from the crossing converted to a roundabout, and yet the stop sign remained. Didn’t make any sense.

  8. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar

    “…don’t drive around lowered gates or flashing lights at grade crossings.”

    There’s your answer. Good luck with that.

    1. Zentropy Avatar
      Zentropy

      I hate to sound insensitive, but I completely agree with this and other similar statements above. The gate and flashing lights provide adequate warning, and there’s not much you can do if someone decides not to heed it. I feel much the same way about seat belts and motorcycle helmets (excluding children)– if you don’t want to protect yourself, then that’s your choice. Evolution is much better at preventing stupid decision-making than we are.

    2. Zentropy Avatar
      Zentropy

      I hate to sound insensitive, but I completely agree with this and other similar statements above. The gate and flashing lights provide adequate warning, and there’s not much you can do if someone decides not to heed it. I feel much the same way about seat belts and motorcycle helmets (excluding children)– if you don’t want to protect yourself, then that’s your choice. Evolution is much better at preventing stupid decision-making than we are.

  9. danleym Avatar
    danleym

    Nothing can prevent stupid people from being stupid, and I dont have much sympathy for the idiot who circumvents the gates. However, they’re not the only person impacted. The engineer will forever live knowing his train killed someone, and will question if he could have changed anything. And then, like in this instance, there’s the 7 passengers hurt, because of someone else’s stupidity.

    The 4 quadrant system seems to make sense. To address a couple of the drawbacks:

    Most firetrucks in the US carry Knox keys that allow access through gates and into buildings around the city. Police and ambulance access to these keys will vary from city to city. Seems easy enough to incorporate this system into a railroad crossing for use in the event of a malfunction. It would delay, but not entirely prevent response in that instance.

    Also, as far as the trapped car possibility. Drop the set of arms on the approach side 10-15 seconds before the departure side, allowing cars to clear. Have sensors to detect a car on the tracks, which would leave the departure side gates open until the car clears. Hell, if you want to go really big picture and force the entire industry to change, those sensors that detect a car on the tracks could automatically trigger the train to start braking.

    Those steps would probably reduce the number of collisions at crossings, but you’ll never eliminate them, because people will find a way to express their stupidity against all odds.

  10. outback_ute Avatar
    outback_ute

    Here in Melbourne they are finally working through grade-separating the crossings, it will take years and cost a lot but is the only answer.

    Apart from the safety aspect, there were a group of roads that used to have the boom gates down for 40-45 minutes per hour during rush hour when the trains run more frequently.

    You just can’t get past the idiot factor. On a related note even with all these warning devices this low rail bridge has been struck by vehicles 3 times this year. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/74c5b1a46f0638d402255b783d8ad4f4c89dde8bc640ae579389e07d02a6effd.jpg

  11. Sjalabais Avatar
    Sjalabais

    This is basically what makes me sceptical to those “zero people die in our cars”-promises that some carmakers like Volvo have come up with, attached to a seemingly arbitrary date. Even automated systems will have their weaknesses or a way to be tempered with.

    People will always find a way around every system. Both lowered gates and flashing lights (in case of fully closed intersections) should avoid crashes and stuck cars for obvious reasons. I’m not even sure every single of these people are necessarily so stupid, distracted and tired might be enough. I’ve done my share of stupid things, even though I’d struggle to come up with a good scenario to drive onto a closed train crossing.

    I work with urban planning (“rural planning”?) and am fully aware of the highly detailled work descriptions, laws, regulations and standards that come with infrastructure design. But even at the very top, politicians try to chip away at that for cost savings and constituents and lobbyists odd desires. Enter the planners, who try to accomodate regional and local issues. Regulations are favoured casualties. Next up the builders, who win a contract by bidding a lowest possible number, eyeing a way out of every rule and standard they deem superfluous. Only then do you get the end user, who comes up with all sorts of shenanigans, some of them to the utter surprise of everyone involved in the earlier chain of shame.

  12. neight428 Avatar
    neight428

    Shame about the damage to the platform and train equipment as well as the injuries to those on the train. Likewise for the passengers in the car, but the driver is at best willfully ignorant. You can only do so much for those people.

  13. ptschett Avatar
    ptschett

    Per the NY Times the driver of the car may have been trying to run from an accident scene…

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