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Federal Railroad Administration Grade Crossing Safety Summit

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
FRA Grade Crossing Safety Summit
Washington, DC
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Thank you, Ron [Batory, FRA Administrator] for organizing this important gathering of transportation leaders.  We are so fortunate to have one of our country’s premier experts on railroads and railroad safety like Ron Batory at the helm of FRA.  He is doing a great job as FRA Administrator!  He’s got a great team at FRA.  And he has great stakeholders.  Let me thank everyone here for participating in today’s summit.

Let me begin by recognizing the progress that has been made in improving railroad crossing safety.  By 2017, determined efforts by the Department and transportation stakeholders helped reduce railroad grade crossing fatalities to a third of what they were in 1989.  I was Deputy Secretary of Transportation at the time and remember those numbers well. 

This milestone was made possible by many of the people and organizations in this room, who worked in collaboration with the FRA to reduce railroad crossing accidents and fatalities. 

But as you know so well, there is always more work to do.

Statistics show that progress has leveled off the last 5 years.  So, I have asked the FRA—along with Federal Highways, FTA, Motor Carriers and NHTSA – to collaborate in devising new strategies to further improve safety around grade crossings.  This effort will be greatly enhanced by the active participation of the stakeholder groups in this room. 

Success will require infrastructure improvements.  It will also require new communications tools to get the word out about the dangers at railroad crossings.  The communications goal is to change people’s behavior and make them aware of how difficult it is for a train to stop. 

Every day, new drivers are getting behind the wheel of a car.  Every day, pedestrians at grade crossings gamble that they have time to cross the tracks before the train comes.  The data indicates that only 32 of the more than 2,100 grade crossing collisions last year involved failure of automatic warning devices.  That means every day, drivers, pedestrians and others are making dangerous, reckless decisions to try and “beat” trains.  Those who ignore the signals are classified as trespassers, just like those who are illegally in the rail right of way.  So, year-round public awareness campaigns will be the keys to reducing dangerous trespassing. 

FRA, NHTSA, and Operation Lifesaver have collaborated on National Rail Safety Week and have done some wonderful work.  NHTSA began an ad campaign – Stop. Trains Can’t – in 2018 and supported it with a $4.3 million ad buy.  An additional $4.5 million has been obligated for an advertising buy in FY 2019.

Technology also holds the promise of reducing grade crossings incidents. 

The FRA is working with the Department’s Intelligent Transportation System Joint Program Office, other modes and the private sector to make grade crossings safer.  The goal is to keep grade crossing safety a part of the ongoing conversation about the development of intelligent or autonomous vehicles.  How should cars, buses and trucks communicate with grade crossings?  How can this technology be used to make grade crossings safer and prevent drivers from violating crossing warnings?  The FRA has committed $1.9 million to this project to date, with an additional $514,000 allocated for Fiscal Year 2019.  The men and women of the FRA, and the rest of the Department of Transportation are working hard to enable innovation that can improve railroad crossing safety.

Of course, the safest rail crossings are those that have been closed or grade-separated.  I urge communities, in partnership with the railroads, to identify and close high-risk or unnecessary grade crossings.  Additional lives can be saved by implementing grade-separation projects at the most congested and dangerous crossings.

This is being done in Chicago, where I announced, on October 1, 2018, a $132 million INFRA grant.  This grant for the CREATE program will improve the local rail network and make it safer.  It will eliminate several busy grade-crossings, which will boost safety.  Eliminating these crossings will also improve passenger and freight rail service, and relieve road congestion.  This project is a partnership between DOT, state and city governments, Amtrak, Chicago’s METRA commuter railroad and the nation’s freight railroads.  This is the kind of collaboration that can help make big strides.

Let me close by noting that every week, Ron Batory updates the Department’s senior leadership on grade crossing incidents.  So, addressing this challenge is a top priority.   I know I can continue to count on him, our colleagues in the FRA, and everyone in this room to develop innovative new tools to move the trend lines down again, so that more lives can be saved.  

Thank you again for participating in this symposium and for your commitment to improving railway crossing safety.

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