YouTube Research Spotlight: Research to Improve At-Grade Rail Crossing Safety

The UMTC Research Section Launches a Research Spotlight YouTube Channel. We are showcasing research currently being conducted on “At-Grade Rail Crossing Safety” by Radhameris Gomez.  Ms. Gomez is a PhD candidate in the UMass Transportation Engineering Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. View the overview video (3 minutes) or the extended video (10 minutes) to find out how she became interested in studying transportation engineering.

TrailCrashes at roadway-railroad intersections happen far too often. Federal Railroad Administration data show that 2,025 such crashes occurred in the United States in 2016, resulting in 265 fatalities and 798 injuries. There have been a number of roadway-rail intersection crashes recently. For example, in Florida, an Amtrak train collision with a car left one person dead; in Arkansas, one person was killed and another injured when their car crossed into a train’s path; and in North Carolina, a train crashed into a car that stopped on the railroad tracks when the safety arms came down, and the car driver was killed. Earlier in March, a freight train collided with a charter bus in Mississippi that had become stuck on a rail crossing with low clearance on the crest of a slope. Four people were killed and others injured; it was the 161st crash since 1976 at that crossing. After a March snowstorm, a local DPW worker in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, died when his snowplow backed onto railroad tracks when a train was coming. At that intersection, there are no gate arms or traffic signals to help warn drivers when a train would be coming; there had been five other crashes and four other deaths at that location since the 1970s.

Previous studies have examined primary contributing factors for grade-crossing train-car crashes and how these crashes can be prevented. Jeff Caird and colleagues at the University of Calgary analyzed over 300 grade-crossing crashes in Canada (2002). They estimated that adding flashing lights to a rail crossing without them has the potential to reduce crashes by over 60 percent, as compared to crossbucks alone. Michael Lenné and colleagues at Monash University in Australia conducted a driving simulator study (2010) on driving behavior at three different types of at-grade rail crossings: stop-controlled, with flashing lights, and with a traffic signal. The researchers found that participants slowed their vehicles the most when approaching rail crossings with flashing lights.

By: Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

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DC Metro : Getting Back on Track

One year ago, in March 2016, the entire Washington, DC, subway system was closed for 29 hours for emergency inspections. This shutdown came after a number of electrical fires oin the subway system, involving fraying third-rail electrical cables. In January 2015, a Washington Metro train encountered heavy smoke near the L’Enfant station due to a third-rail electrical issue and was forced to cease service. One passenger died from smoke inhalation and others were injured. On March 14, 2016, an electrical fire, caused by the same electrical issues as the Nee L’Enfant station incident, occurred near another station. There were fortunately no fatalities. Still, the Metro management shut down subway service a few days later to allow for a system-wide inspection of all third-rail power cables to proactively address system safety before further incidents.

Run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Metro is the second-highest use rapid transit system in the United States, behind just  the New York City subway system, in terms of passenger trips, serving over 700,000 riders per weekday.  Metro is just over 40 years old and faces the many of the same challenges as older US transit systems, including inadequate funding and maintenance backlogs.

In May 2016, WMATA introduced SafeTrack, a comprehensive accelerated maintenance and repair program for implementing safety recommendations and needed upgrades to rail infrastructure.  SafeTrack involves the use of “surges,” intensive work on specific sections of the rail network and the shutting down of one or both tracks in those sections during this work, together with the reduction of Metro operating hours at night and on weekends to make more tracks available for maintenance.

Last week, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on its audit of the SafeTrack program.  GAO found that WMATA did not following leading management practices and “(1) comprehensively collect and assess data on its assets, (2) analyze alternatives, or (3) develop a project management plan”  prior to implementing SafeTrack.  In response to the GAO findings, Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Weidefeld stated that WMATA didn’t have time for comprehensive data collection before starting SafeTrack, because safety issues and delayed maintenance had reached a critical point and needed to be addressed as soon as possible. GAO recommends that WMATA develop a full asset inventory and a project management plan for those needed projects that may not qualify as major capital projects.  WMATA is now working to address GAO’s recommendations.

The GAO report found that SafeTrack “will require an additional $40 million in fiscal year 2017 funding.” It is not yet clear where that funding will come from.  Although many transit systems are challenged by inadequate funding, Metro is specifically impacted by one funding issue not faced by other large US transit systems:  Metro has no dedicated funding or revenue sources for its operating budget. WMATA relies heavily on year-to-year subsidies from the governments of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, which each have budget constraints and funding priorities of their own. In 2016, 47% of Metro’s budget came from local and state subsidies and 45% from fare revenue. In contrast, for the MBTA, 62% of the budget comes from dedicated revenue (such as the sales tax) and 33% from fares.  In New York, the MTA’s budget relies 36% on dedicated funding, 52% on fare revenue, and 8% on local and state subsidies.  WMATA currently has an almost $300 million annual budget gap.

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The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) provided some funding for SafeTrack repairs and maintenance. Increasingly, business leaders, DC officials, and others are calling for a dedicated source of funding or regional sales tax surcharge to support Metro operations. So far, these requests have faced opposition from Virginia and Maryland officials.  Proponents argue that dedicated funding is not only important for Metro system safety, but could relieve traffic congestion and spur economic development as well.

Also, last week, board members of Metrolink, the regional rail system in Los Angeles, met with the Metro Board Safety Committee to share Metrolink’s firsthand experience with the importance of making safety a priority.  The Metrolink officials showed a poignant video that Metrolink made following the most deadly crash in Metrolink history, a 2008 crash in which 25 people were killed when a commuter train collided with a freight train.  The video focuses on commitment and responsibilities of the Metrolink board regarding safety.  At the meeting,  Metro board member Michael Goldman suggested Metro could create its own video on the safety in the Metro system for its board members and the public.

By: Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

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2016 Commercial Vehicle Safety Research Summit

The University of Massachusetts Traffic Safety Research Program (UMassSafe) held a Commercial Vehicle Safety Research Summit in November of 2016 to promote best practices for advancing safety through partnerships among law enforcement and state driver’s license agencies with universities.  With more than 100 attendees from across the Northeast, the 2-day Summit, funded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), addressed key issues related to crash prevention including driver distraction and autonomous vehicles, as well as homeland security, drugged driving, social media and workforce development.

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“Innovation is rapidly changing the transportation sector.  The Federal and state governments must keep up while never losing sight of protecting the traveling public,” said FMCSA Deputy Administrator Daphne Jefferson, one of the keynote speakers. “This summit enables us to learn from each other and build partnerships with universities to realize the safety benefits of innovation and automation.”

The goals of the summit were based upon the premise that an integrated approach and effective partnerships can reduce the number of truck and bus crashes and fatalities.  Massachusetts has enjoyed positive safety results because of the successful partnership that now exists between UMassSafe, the Massachusetts State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section and MassDOT’s Registry of Motor Vehicles Division. Using this experience as an example, summit organizers encouraged other state participants to develop or expand the connection between universities and state agencies involved in crash prevention efforts.

The FMCSA funded project continues with the implementation of a UMassSafe Technical Assistance Center (TAC) in order to provide assistance for law enforcement and licensing agencies as well as universities, acting as a resource and information center building on the momentum of the Summit.  Additional information can be accessed at www.umasstransportationcenter.org/cvsummit.

By: Robin Riessman, UMassSafe