Rail cross­ings dan­ger­ous; nav­i­ga­tion apps no help

The Morning Call - - STATE NEWS - By Ja­son Laugh­lin

Two cars had weaved be­tween the low­ered rail­road cross­ing gates in Lans­downe and come through safely.

The ma­neu­ver, while illegal, seemed safe. A south­bound SEPTA train had al­ready passed, and the gates seemed to be stay­ing down longer than needed. So a third driver ven­tured onto the tracks, and that’s when a train head­ing the op­po­site di­rec­tion reached the in­ter­sec­tion. The car was thrown for 500 yards, and the driver killed.

The April in­ci­dent was the only col­li­sion at a rail­road cross­ing on SEPTA’s sys­tem so far this year, but last year there were four, one of them fa­tal. In the last five years, SEPTA has re­ported 10 col­li­sions re­sult­ing in three deaths. In 2018 na­tion­wide, there were 2,214 in­ci­dents at the in­ter­sec­tions of tracks and roads, re­sult­ing in 263 deaths, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Com­muter trains travel through sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties as slowly as 15 mph or as fast as 55 mph, of­fi­cials said — more than enough speed to kill peo­ple in a ve­hi­cle on the tracks.

Be­yond the po­ten­tial for tragedy, the col­li­sions dis­rupt pub­lic tran­sit. A car on the tracks can se­ri­ously dam­age trains, even caus­ing a de­rail­ment, and also can dam­age tracks and nearby equip­ment. Even if the train is rel­a­tively un­scathed, a grade­cross­ing col­li­sion will al­most cer­tainly cause ma­jor de­lays.

“You’re at least an hour, an hour and a half, at best, be­fore you can re­sume ser­vice,” said Jim Fox, SEPTA’s as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager for safety. “All the trains on that line will be af­fected if it’s dur­ing rush hour.”

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board thinks an app could help.

A Politico story this month de­tailed rail­roads’ fail­ure to get GPS nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem providers like Google or Ap­ple to add rail­road-cross­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tions to their maps, de­spite a 2016 NTSB rec­om­men­da­tion that com­pa­nies add alerts about the na­tion’s more than 210,000 cross­ings. Three years later, Politico re­ported, only TomTom and Garmin have re­sponded to the NTSB rec­om­men­da­tion, which is not legally bind­ing.

A spokesper­son for Google, which along with its own maps app owns the nav­i­ga­tion app Waze, told Politico that per­son­nel were con­cerned that adding rail­road-cross­ing alerts could over­whelm driv­ers with warn­ings, caus­ing them to ig­nore crit­i­cal no­ti­fi­ca­tions.

The FRA is work­ing with tech com­pa­nies to find ways to use nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems to make driv­ers pay at­ten­tion to cross­ings, an agency spokesper­son said.

Mean­while, SEPTA has tried to cre­ate its own col­lab­o­ra­tion with Waze, with mixed re­sults. The agency has 148 grade cross­ings on Re­gional Rail and two sub­ur­ban trol­ley lines. Each work­day on Re­gional Rail alone, more than 5,000 trains cross roads used by au­to­mo­biles. Waze al­lows SEPTA to add no­ti­fi­ca­tions of those cross­ings to the app but won’t make them per­ma­nent. So SEPTA has made staff en­gage in the Sisyphean task of en­ter­ing the lo­ca­tions of all the agency’s grade cross­ings onto Waze ev­ery morn­ing.

“Waze has to au­to­mat­i­cally wipe them out af­ter 20 to 30 hours,” Fox said. “Ev­ery day we have to re­in­stall.” The process can take hours.

SEPTA of­fi­cials have not reached out to other nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems out of con­cern that the in­for­ma­tion it pro­vides may not trans­late ac­cu­rately to the com­pa­nies’ maps.

NJ Tran­sit, which re­ported three col­li­sions be­tween au­to­mo­biles and trains on its At­lantic City Line since 2014 — and 43 col­li­sions re­sult­ing in 12 deaths dur­ing the same time pe­riod on tracks statewide — also is con­sid­er­ing a di­a­logue with Waze, a spokesper­son said. The RiverLine be­tween Tren­ton and Cam­den re­ported 14 in­ci­dents since 2014, ac­cord­ing to FRA data. Three died in those in­ci­dents.

Amtrak’s po­lice depart­ment con­tacted Google last month to re­quest adding grade-cross­ing alerts to its maps but has not re­ceived a re­ply.

“Amtrak agrees with the NTSB, and it is dis­ap­point­ing to see the ab­sence of at­ten­tion given to this rec­om­men­da­tion,” said Beth Toll, an Amtrak spokes­woman.

Amtrak re­ported two grade­cross­ing in­ci­dents to the FRA in Penn­syl­va­nia since 2014, one fa­tal. None were re­ported in the same time pe­riod in New Jer­sey.

FRA data show 6,422 grade cross­ings in Penn­syl­va­nia across all rail­road ser­vices and 2,202 in New Jer­sey.

In Penn­syl­va­nia, by far the most col­li­sions be­tween cars and trains hap­pen on Nor­folk South­ern tracks, which re­ported 171 in­ci­dents in five years with eight fa­tal­i­ties. The freight rail car­rier also has reached an ar­range­ment with Waze, the com­pany said Mon­day, that gives driv­ers a ban­ner no­ti­fi­ca­tion at the top of their smart­phone if they are trav­el­ing on a route that in­cludes rail­road cross­ings at 63 lo­ca­tions in Alabama, In­di­ana, Ge­or­gia, Ohio, Ken­tucky and Penn­syl­va­nia, in Al­legheny County. A driver can choose to have the an­other no­ti­fi­ca­tion come up as a car nears a cross­ing.

For SEPTA, ve­hi­cles typ­i­cally col­lide with trains for two rea­sons. Peo­ple like the Lans­downe driver at­tempt to weave through closed gates, think­ing they can beat the train. Oth­ers mis­tak­enly turn onto the tracks, think­ing they’re on a road. Both SEPTA and com­pa­nies with dig­i­tal nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems are wary of the ways GPS sys­tems may con­fuse driv­ers in alert­ing them to an ap­proach­ing turn.

While rail and govern­ment of­fi­cials would like com­pa­nies with nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems to be more forth­com­ing, they note the many ex­ist­ing warn­ings — in­clud­ing lights, gates and signs — that an at­ten­tive driver should no­tice. SEPTA also has painted yel­low stripes within the space where a ve­hi­cle would be in dan­ger of con­tact­ing a train and is adding de­lin­eator posts at some cross­ings.

“There’s plenty of in­di­ca­tions to give you an alert that there’s a grade cross­ing,” Fox said.

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