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Predictable, Dedicated Funding for Rail can Improve Safety and Quality of Life

Predictable, Dedicated Funding for Rail can Improve Safety and Quality of Life

Regular readers of the Fast Lane blog have probably heard me say that rail travel has never been safer.  Accidents caused by faulty track, signal systems or equipment, and human error have decreased nearly 50 percent over the last decade to new record lows.  Employee fatalities are down 59 percent over the same period.  But one vexing exception to this continuous improvement exists: highway-rail grade crossing and pedestrian trespassing accidents, which together account for approximately 95% of all rail-related fatalities.

The safest crossing is one that doesn’t exist. And recently, I visited two places where our investments are funding capital improvements to eliminate crossings, make communities safer and improve their quality of life.

Last week in North Carolina I saw two of the 26 projects – all supported by our High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program – that are improving safety and service between Charlotte and Raleigh.  Between Lexington and Thomasville, North Carolina, workers are building two new highway bridges that will lift vehicle traffic above the tracks and enable three crossings to close.  In Harrisburg, two more crossings, as you can see below, will close thanks to a new 150-foot roadway bridge.

Construction of a roadway bridge
Photo Courtesy of John D. SimmonsCharlotte Observer

These projects and the others we’ve funded will eliminate nearly 50 grade crossings and strategically locate overpasses and underpasses in an effort to seal the corridor, eliminating the possibility of a crash involving vehicles and trains.  

Yesterday, I visited Springfield, Illinois for the groundbreaking of the Carpenter Street Underpass – supported by DOT’s TIGER program – that is a key part of the city’s vision to improve the safety and quality of life for its residents. By building this underpass, three rail crossings will close.  And it’s the first step of a larger effort – the Springfield Improvement Project – that will consolidate rail traffic moving through the city to a more efficient route, build nine new underpasses and close 36 crossings.  At full build-out, emergency access to Springfield’s two hospitals will improve and chronic train horn noise will become a thing of the past. But, full build-out requires more funding.

Carpenter Street Underpass Groundbreaking Springfield, Il
Carpenter Street Underpass Groundbreaking Springfield, Il

Projects like the ones in North Carolina and Springfield, Illinois not only improve safety and rail service, but they are critically important for the surrounding communities. As the quality of life improves for their residents, vehicle and pedestrian flows are improved, economic opportunities follow and communities can begin growing again.

But this future can only become reality through predictable, dedicated funding and long-term planning.

We can advance these efforts if Congress supports our GROW AMERICA Act, which, for the first time ever, would provide predictable, dedicated federal funding for enhancing safety and strengthening America’s rail network. It would invest $19 billion over four years in rail programs and rail projects, including those that drive continuous safety improvement and mitigate the adverse impacts of rail operations.

As NCDOT Rail Division Director Paul Worley told the Charlotte Observer, “Gains like this don’t happen by chance. It takes a concerted effort and ongoing investment.”

And in closing, remember that being on the rails and their surrounding property is not only extremely dangerous; it’s illegal.  To learn more – and help spread this message – check out our latest rail safety education campaign with Operation Lifesaver: See Tracks? Think Train!

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The right funding for trail program can actually lead to ultimate safety and improved quality of life. There should be a dedicated and predictable funding to make these happen.

I hope that we keep pedestrians and bicyclists in mind when we close railroad crossings so that pedestrians and bicyclists don't have excessive detours. I'm all for eliminating crossings, but we need to also ensure that railroads don't become barriers to pedestrian and bicycle networks.
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