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Operation Lifesaver Frequently Asked Questions

​What are engineers most afraid of hitting at the crossing?

An engineer's worst nightmare is hitting a school bus or other vehicle full of children. The second greatest fear for most engineers is hitting a tank truck full of gasoline or chemicals. In these types of crashes, the train crew is often killed or seriously injured as well as the truck driver and people near the crossing.  

Why can't long freight trains clear the crossings faster?

First of all, trains are operated under rigid speed restrictions that are monitored very closely by the railroads and regulatory agencies. Most freight trains probably average a mile in length. If the train is travelling 50 to 60 MPH, it only takes about a minute to clear the crossing. At 30 MPH, it still only takes two minutes to clear. It only seems longer when you're in a hurry. Freight trains are made up that long because it's more efficient. A long train actually means there will be fewer trains to occupy the crossing.  

Why do trains have the right-of way?

Trains cannot stop in time for motorists at crossings, or for trespassers on the tracks. The average freight train, travelling at 55 MPH, takes anywhere from a mile to a mile and a half to make a complete stop. The average automobile can stop in only 200 feet at that same speed. It's a simple matter of physics: the heavier the object, the longer the stopping distance. In addition, the contact surface between a train's steel wheels and the steel rails is only the size of a dime! That results in very little friction created when compared to an automobile with rubber tires on asphalt or concrete.  

What number do I call to get a train stopped when there is an emergency?

The fastest method is to call the local police or 911. Tell them the location, generally the name of the road intersecting the tracks or the nearest town, and they will contact the railroad. The railroad dispatcher can reach the locomotive engineers by radio and they will do everything possible to get any approaching trains stopped in time. Don't try to flag down the train.   Remember-----it can't stop quickly! Most engineers can effectively see about a half-mile ahead of their train. There's not enough time to stop by the time they see you flagging them down.  

Flat spots on rail car wheels cause a loud banging noise. Is this dangerous?

Flat spots on rail wheels are quite common and are caused when the wheels end up sliding on the rails for various reasons. Generally, there is no cause for alarm. It's like an automobile tire that wears unevenly, but isn't replaced until tread depth is reduced to a certain point. Railroad equipment is closely monitored by the railroads and by federal and state inspectors. Flat spots are allowed to certain tolerances. The railroads maintenance personnel work hard to try and make sure these tolerances aren't exceeded. They replace wheels on a regular basis.  

Who do I call to report a malfunctioning signal?

Call the local police, who will contact the railroad. If the signal malfunction is occurring on rail lines owned by the Union Pacific (UPRR) or BNSF Railway (BNSF), you can call the following numbers:

  • UPRR - 1-800-848-8715
  • BNSF - 1-800-832-5452

These are emergency railroad crossing numbers. Please don't call them for other matters.  

What should I do when the signals are on and no train is visible?

If it is only flashing lights, you may proceed after coming to a complete stop, but only when you are sure the track or tracks are clear. If there are gates at the crossing and they are in the lowered position, you must not go around them, but drive to a different crossing. It is against the law to drive around lowered gates. It is possible that the signals are on because of the "fail-safe" design of railroad crossing signals and gates. If a wire shorts, for example, the warning system is activated. Battery power is also available when the regular power goes out to be sure the signals activate when a train approaches. Remember, when a signal system is activated, a train is almost always in the approach circuits, but may be blocked from view.  

Why don't all crossings have automatic warning devices?

The money for installing automatic warning devices actually comes from the taxpayers. A typical installation can cost $200,000 or more. Once they're installed, the railroad maintains the system from then on at their cost. Many factors, such as frequency of rail traffic, motor vehicle traffic and collision history play a part in determining which crossings will be signalized. There is also a surprising statistic to consider. More than 50 percent of all collisions occur at crossings equipped with automatic warning devices. The flashing red lights and gates are important aids in warning us of dangers, but they will not eliminate collisions. It is important that we remember to look and listen when approaching any highway-rail grade crossing.  

Why aren't crossing gates heavier?

Heavier crossing gates would cause several problems. The gate is there as a warning to drivers, not as an impenetrable barrier. Sometimes, drivers get trapped on the crossing with the gate down behind them. The gate is made of lightweight material that will break off when a vehicle drives through it so there's an escape route. Heavier crossing gates would also be more difficult to keep operating properly.  

Why do trains have to blow their horns at crossings with automatic signals?

Many times, drivers find themselves not paying attention or not expecting to see a train, especially at crossings they are very familiar with, because they never see a train there. These are the times when the locomotive horn may be the only warning that gets the driver's attention. Don't make the mistake of thinking a seldom-used track has been abandoned. The railroad can put a train there at any time!  

Who do I contact to complain about visibility problems at crossings?

It depends upon who owns the land where the obstruction sits. It could be on the railroad right-of-way which would be the railroad's responsibility. It could be a private landowner, or it could also be government land. Regardless of the owner, those situations should be reported to the railroad, preferably the division superintendent's office. In Washington State you can also contact rail@utc.wa.gov  

Is a driver in violation of the law when stopping a vehicle on a crossing?

Yes! It is against the law. It may only be a misdemeanor, but some drivers end up paying for it with the death penalty because they couldn't get off the tracks in time.  

Can I use the railroad tracks to access a remote area or beach if I'm careful?

No. It is trespassing. Railroad property is private property and access is strictly limited to railroad personnel and only those persons who have been granted permission from the railroad. People who trespass on the railroad right-of-way may think they'll be safe for various reasons, but the truth is more than 500 are killed each year in the United States and many others are critically injured. They either didn't expect a train, thought it would be on the other track, thought it was moving slower, thought it could stop for them, stood too close, or just didn't take the time to think about the dangers. In every case they were dead wrong! Don't let it happen to you. It's not worth the risk.