Frequently Asked Questions About Railroads

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Yes, it is against the law to walk on railroad tracks. You could be arrested for trespassing. Railroad tracks and rights-of-way are private property with access strictly limited to railroad personnel and persons who have been granted permission from the railroad. Anyone else on the track or grounds of the railroad is trespassing. More than 1,000 people are killed or injured each year in the United States while trespassing on railroad tracks, railyards or other railroad property.

Trains simply can’t stop in time for a motorist at a crossing. Even if the engineer fully applies emergency brakes, a train traveling 55 miles per hour can take a mile or more to stop. A car can stop in about 200 feet. The car has the best stopping ability.

Longer trains are efficient and cost effective. They carry more goods, which means fewer trains.

Typically, when a train passes, a crossing may be blocked for a few minutes, depending on the type of train and the train’s speed and length. If the crossing is near a switching yard, it may take longer. Speeds are set depending on the type of train, cargo load, track situation or location.

There may be times when a train can’t move and it becomes necessary to block a crossing longer than normal, for example, when restoring pressure to the air brake system after braking for an emergency. Except in an emergency, trains should not block crossings for more than 10 minutes.

Be patient. Railroads and railroaders do not intentionally block crossings. Generally, there is a very good reason why a crossing is blocked for more than five minutes, including waiting on the arrival of another train to pass or waiting to enter a railyard. Occasionally, there are technical problems with locomotives or cars.

Write down the time, date and how long the crossing was blocked. Note what city, street or route you were traveling on and the DOT number on the blocked crossing. If possible, write down the numbers on the side of some of the cars or on the locomotive.

Each public railroad crossing should have a bright blue emergency notification sign somewhere near the crossing. That sign will include the name and phone number of the railroad company and a unique identification AAR-DOT number, a six digit number followed by a letter, such as "123456 A."

Trains have set speed regulations. Slowing down a train doesn’t necessarily mean fewer crashes. More than half of all crossing collisions occur when train speeds are 30 miles per hour or less.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) governs many of the operational aspects of railroads. Federal regulation preempts any local speed restrictions and most operating practice procedures on trains.

Federal law requires the sounding of the locomotive’s horn at least 20 seconds before the train approaches a rail/highway crossing of any public road. The horn will be sounded from about ¼ mile from the crossing until the train proceeds through the crossing. The horn is part of the overall safety system used at all crossings to alert highway users of the approaching train.

The FRA allows certain communities to apply for “quiet zones.” If the community qualifies, the locomotive would not sound its horn when passing through the crossing in most instances. Cities may also investigate the use of “wayside horns,” which are mounted at the signal post of a public rail/highway crossing so that the locomotive does not have to blow its horn. Wayside horns are less disruptive than locomotive horns because they are directed at the traffic in the street.

The West Virginia Department of Transportation administers the West Virginia Highway/Rail Crossing Safety Program. Highway/rail crossing safety projects are funded using Federal “Section 130” funds, which can only be spent on public crossings.

Each request for public crossing lights and/or gates is evaluated. Because funds are limited and the need is so great, only the crossings with extreme amounts of train and vehicle traffic or other sight distance problems can be granted.

A public crossing is where railroad tracks intersect a roadway that is part of the general system of public streets and highways, is under the jurisdiction of and maintained by a public authority and is open to the general traveling public.

A private crossing is one that is on a private roadway that may connect to part of the general system of public streets and highways, but is not maintained by a public authority. Usually, the property on at least one side of the railroad tracks is private property. Private crossings are usually intended for the exclusive use of the adjoining property owner and the property owner’s family, employees, residential, farm, recreation, cultural, industrial or commercial activities.

Contact the railroad that is responsible for that crossing (you should find this information on the bright blue emergency notification sign somewhere near the crossing). You can also contact the Public Service Commission Railroad Safety Section at 304-340-0432.

There are approximately 8,000 public highway rail crossings in West Virginia.

Call the railroad emergency number on the railroad equipment at the crossing or call 9-1-1 or your local law enforcement agency and give them the exact location.

It is important to report all suspected malfunctions directly to the railroad so they can be corrected as soon as possible since the railroad is responsible for maintaining the warning system. Warning systems are designed so if they do fail, they do so in the safest position – with lights flashing and gates down. To quickly report malfunctioning grade crossing signals, call the railroad emergency number on the railroad equipment at the crossing. Otherwise, call 9-1-1 or your local law enforcement agency and give them the DOT number and exact location.

Contact the Public Service Commission Railroad Safety Section at 304-340-0432 or jperry@psc.state.wv.us