Thursday, April 14, 2016

Canada's Riskiest Train Crossings

The CBC has broken a story about a Transport Canada database listing Canada's "highest risk" railway crossings. The gist of the article is that TC should have made this list available to municipalities and the public. (update: it will be shared)

I can't comment on that but I imagine it wasn't shared because:

  1. TC didn't think anyone else was interested; and/or
  2. TC wasn't entirely confident of their algorithms and didn't want them challenged.

In any case, a slightly older version of the database is available for searching at the bottom of the article above. You can enter your city and it will list the crossings in your area that are in the database.

Driver Error

Winnipeg's Waverley Street crossing was listed as one of the top 5 riskiest in Winnipeg (CBC article). The CBC article interviewed a woman whose vehicle was struck on the crossing... after she stopped on the tracks. The Manitoba Highway Traffic Act is quite clear on this:
135.1       No person shall stop a vehicle (a) within a railway crossing; or (b) in a location where any part of the vehicle is over a track in a railway crossing.
Seems pretty clear to me.

As you may know, I'm not in favour of the $155 million plan to replace this crossing with an overpass. The accident above was totally preventable - don't stop on the tracks. Period.

And don't get me started on people who drive around gates...


Speed

Many rural crossings were built decades ago when trains and cars were slower, and they are obsolete.

The tragic accident near Elie, Manitoba early this year is an example of this. The accident happened after a hockey game, probably at night, and VIA 2 hit their truck at about 70 MPH at the 7W grade crossing here. 15 year old Taylor Piskor was critically injured, and her father was also injured. Sadly Taylor died in early March.

The sight lines would be great at that crossing, but it's hard to judge train speeds, especially at night. When you see a headlight in the distance, what do you do? Do you wait, knowing that you could be delayed 5-10 minutes (or more), or do you proceed?

Humans are not always good at assessing risks. We are good at recognizing high probability / high consequence risks ("should I go into that tiger cage?") but not good at recognizing low probability / high consequence risks ("should I race the train?"). This is why we pour billions of dollars into airport security when an American is more likely to be crushed by falling furniture than killed by a terrorist.

We suck at risk assessment, which is why we rely on automated protections so much.

Inherent Problems

I agree that many of the crossings shown in this follow-up article have inherent problems. Sight-lines are a big problem. The Hall Road crossing here is a good example, and it is listed in Winnipeg's highest risk crossings. I know that you can't see to the right / east until you are practically on the rails, because the sight lines are terrible and the road is lower than the tracks.


Another common issue is a road intersection very close to the tracks. This can cause traffic to back up onto the tracks... even though you're not supposed to stop on tracks (see above). I recall a crossing in rural Nova Scotia had a truck-train collision several years ago because of this; the truck stopped at the intersection but the trailer was hanging over the tracks.

Solutions

In many cases, I believe the solution is to close the crossing.

It can cost $250,000 or more to put a full railway crossing with lights and gates in, and then it has to be maintained forever at a significant cost. There has to be a cost/benefit analysis done and in many cases the benefit of increased safety at a crossing is not worth the cost. So close the crossing and make drivers go an extra couple of kilometers.

In the Hall Road example above, there is a much safer crossing 3.5 km to the west (with lights and gates and good sight lines), or the Perimeter Highway overpass 2 km to the east (an overpass). Just close it.

Transport Canada has a grade crossing closure program.


In many cases, though, closing the crossing is not an option. Each crossing has to be examined on its own merit and often there is no simple solution. Keep in mind that in most cases the municipality / province has to bear the cost of upgrading the crossings, because the railway was there first and the road came later.

So we need to upgrade some crossings. Let's get to it and make our crossings safer.

In the meantime, stop - look - listen and don't proceed unless you're sure it is safe. It's better to wait a few minutes while a train passes than to take a chance and lose... big time.

More information:



2 comments:

toby buxton said...

Or instead of going over a crossing wait Untill a train come and take some pictures then cross!

Taylor Woolston said...

The big problem is the drivers, not the crossings for the most part.