Stop, look and listen at those rural RR crossings

Spring has sprung and farmers are chomping at the bit to get into their fields and put down crop 2012. As they do so, traffic will increase on rural roads and safe crossing of rural railroads will become problematic — when you are piloting machinery and are in a hurry.

Last June at a rural crossing near Reno, Nev., at least six people were killed and up to 30 were missing when an Amtrak train out of Chicago was hit by a fully-loaded semi. The truck was the lead in a convoy approaching a rural crossing. A fellow trucker said they saw the lights flash and the gates come down, but the leader vehicle continued on and hit two double-decker cars on the train. Investigators were unsure as of June 26 of that year what had happened.

The above is a worst-case scenario of how dangerous relatively unused rural crossings can be. And, this is at a time when the nation’s railroads have made many strides in making these crossings less dangerous. Rural crossing accidents are now rare, but, as noted, can be catastrophic.

According to the rental car agency, CRX, drivers need not only to respect trains, but also rail crossings. CRX noted that most drivers cross dozens of railroads each week without complication, or even seeing an oncoming train. But it is to your detriment to forget about that giant motive power that may be lurking just down the track, motive power that cannot stop on the proverbial dime.

Here are four things CRX said you should consider when you approach a railroad crossing, particularly poorly marked or lit rural crossings:

1. Always expect a train, even, or especially, if you can’t see one — many rail crossings are hidden or obstructed, some with tall weeds or crops, making it difficult to see trains coming. Add to that the fact that many trains, particularly passenger trains, are moving at high rates of speed, a fact that will help you begin to understand why they’re dangerous even when you can’t see them.

2. Respect the lights and gates — If the crossing lights are flashing, never race to the tracks. If the arms or cross gates are down, you should never try to drive around them or speed up to try and get under the descending gates. The train you hear or see is often closer and coming faster than you might think. Slow down and respect all crossings all the time. And, of course, many crossing of farm lanes have no gates or signals. You’re on your own and getting to the field in a hurry could lead to never getting to the field again.

3. Never stop on a railway — Remember that even if you are not stopped directly on the tracks, the average train is three feet wider than the tracks. If you get hung up on a crossing while operating a vehicle or machinery, abandon it immediately. It takes a train a great deal of distance to stop once brakes are applied, sometimes up to two miles. In that case your personal safety is more important than the vehicle or machine. (I once witnessed a farmer’s pickup traveling nearly a half mile down the track, after being hit by a slow-moving freight train. The farmer was gazing at his cattle in the field and didn’t notice the train. Luckily, he survived.)

4. Never race a train — You can’t win. Trying to get to the crossing before the locomotive is just plain insanity. Nuff said.

And, please have a safe and happy planting time. Those of us who eat them salute your “Great American Crops.”


An Iowa native, Peter Graham has been a rural newspaper editor for more than 40 years. He currently edits a twice-weekly paper in Western Iowa. You can contact him at (712) 642-2791 or [email protected] sourivalley