Low Cost Active Railroad Crossing Signals

At-grade crossings of railroads and highways present a significant safety challenge. Although collisions between highway vehicles and trains occur less frequently than some other crash types, they are usually severe and often fatal. Prior research and experience demonstrate that, on average, collision frequencies are significantly lower at crossings equipped with "active" crossing signals (which detect the presence of trains and activate lights, alarms, and often gates) than at "passive" crossings (which are marked only by stationary signing like crossbucks). Ideally, all crossings would be equipped with active signals, but their initial cost--commonly between $80,000 and $150,000 each--and ongoing maintenance and operation costs preclude widespread installation. To address this need, low-cost active signal systems have been proposed, built, and deployed in a few test locations throughout the country. These systems, which are intended to cost $15,000-$30,000 per crossing, take advantage of new technologies, such as low-power LED signals, solar power, global positioning, microwave detection, and radio communication. The need for effective signals in South Dakota will increase as regional railroads increase the number and speed of trains. The Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad, for example, plans to dramatically increase traffic on its east-west route through Rapid City, Pierre, Huron, and Brookings. The DM&E is actively upgrading rail to permit operating speeds up to 49 miles per hour, significantly higher than current operating speeds on many portions of track. The use of low-cost signals would enable far more crossings to be equipped with active signals than is possible with conventional technology, improving the safety of motorists and railroads. Research is needed to determine which of the new, low-cost systems are appropriate to South Dakota's need, in consideration of performance, conformance with regulatory requirements, costs, and reliability. The objectives of this research project are to: (1) Identify and evaluate candidate low-cost active rail crossing signal systems and components; (2) Evaluate the potential for application of low-cost active rail crossing signals in South Dakota; and (3) Recommend warrants and specifications for deployment of low-cost active rail crossing signals in South Dakota. Research tasks for this project are as follows: (1) Meet with the project's technical panel to review the project scope and work plan. (2) Identify and describe candidate low-cost active rail crossing signal systems through review of current and recent literature and through interviews of persons engaged in their development and evaluation. (3) Evaluate the current and approaching need for low-cost active rail crossing systems in South Dakota. (4) Determine requirements and describe procedures for obtaining Federal Railroad Administration approval for provisional and permanent use of low-cost active rail crossing systems. (5 )Conduct a technical review to evaluate the applicability of candidate systems for use in South Dakota, in consideration of: availability; initial cost; maintenance costs; operating costs; functionality; reliability; conformance with standards, policies and regulations; portability; ease of upgrade; training requirements; and institutional issues. (6) Recommend, for consideration and approval of the project's technical panel, a plan for field testing the most promising low-cost active rail crossing systems at select locations in South Dakota, encompassing a time period that includes both winter and non-winter seasons. (7) Upon approval of the project's technical panel and approval by FRA for provisional use, evaluate the recommended low-cost active rail crossing systems as described in the approved field testing plan. (8) Propose, for consideration and approval of the project's technical panel, warrants for use of low-cost active rail crossing signal systems in South Dakota. (9) On the basis of the technical review and field evaluation, develop recommendations for specifying, acquiring, and deploying low-cost active rail crossing signal systems at locations throughout South Dakota. Include a comprehensive assessment of costs and benefits of deployment. (10) Prepare a final report and executive summary of the research methodology, findings, conclusions, and recommendations. (11) Make executive presentations to the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT) Research Review Board and to representatives of the railroad industry at the conclusion of the project.