Trains park at intersections daily across the country, sometimes blocking downtowns and rural neighborhoods for hours, a safety problem officials say is rooted in outdated infrastructure and struggles over limited funding.
A new Transportation Department grant program created under the infrastructure law is aiming to improve safety at the nation’s rail crossings, sending $570 million this year to 32 states to upgrade more than 400 locations. The projects will construct overpasses and pay for track relocations and pedestrian and vehicular improvements where train tracks and roads intersect.
The investments come as rail safety remains a focus after the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. The incident, which prompted state and federal investigations, shed light on the effects trains have on communities, including extended blocking of intersections. Residents have called for changes as they report that trains are disrupting traffic, causing seniors to miss doctor’s appointments and forcing children to crawl under them to get to school.
In some cases, firetrucks and ambulances have not been able to respond to emergencies.
“This problem is real,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview. “This has long been an issue, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way forever.”
The first round of grants under the five-year, $3 billion Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant Program (RCE) should help to “change the norm with attention to some of the areas where this issue is most acutely felt,” Buttigieg said. The program will target areas in the rail network where improvements to crossings could save lives, reduce commuting delays and improve commerce, he said.
The grants include nearly $37 million for Houston to build four underpasses and eliminate seven at-grade crossings in the city’s east end, an area that endures chronic train blockages that residents and elected leaders say affect daily life and commercial activities.
Pelham, Ala., will use its $41.7 million grant to build a bridge over two crossings on County Road 52 in the heart of the city that officials say are frequently blocked, leaving first responders unable to access half the city. In Florida, transportation officials will tap $15.4 million to improve 21 railroad crossings in Broward County along a rail corridor with a pattern of train collisions involving vehicles.
Grants also will support studies and design work for future rail crossing improvements, including in the states of Arkansas, California, Maryland, Washington and West Virginia. Officials said 22 percent of this year’s funding, $127.5 million, will support projects in rural communities or on tribal lands.
The grants also aim to prevent the two leading causes of fatalities on U.S. railroads: trespassing on railroad property and trains colliding with vehicles. Last year, about 2,200 grade-crossing incidents resulted in 276 deaths and 800 injuries, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
The grant money is the first substantial dedicated funding for eliminating railroad crossings. The FRA in April issued a safety advisory highlighting risks associated with blocked crossings, noting how stopped trains can impede access for emergency services. It urged railroads to work with communities and first responders “to prevent or at least mitigate” disruptions.
As trains have gotten longer over the years, blocked roadways have drawn more scrutiny in Washington.
The Railway Safety Act, which advanced last month to the Senate floor, would require railroads to maintain a toll-free number for people to report blocked crossings. Since 2019, the FRA has operated a website where people can report obstructions caused by trains. More than 30,000 incidents were reported last year, with nearly 1 in 5 reports citing first responders blocked by trains. Another one-fifth noted pedestrians crawling under train cars or over couplings to get to the other side.
In Houston, where residents filed more than 3,200 complaints — the most from any city — officials sought the federal grant to launch a decade-old plan to build underpasses and eliminate conflicts between rail and other modes of transportation. As many as 124 trains cross the city daily, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said recently, noting that some are at least a mile long and block crossings for upward of 20 minutes. City fire officials say that, on average, there are 90 instances a month when emergency responders are delayed by trains.
“Blocked crossings are a real safety issue that’s happening in Houston and in thousands of other communities across the country,” Turner said at a recent news conference near one of the most frequently blocked crossings in Texas, which will see improvements with the grants.
U.S. transportation officials said that the funding for Houston will reduce commuter disruptions and delays and that decreased vehicle idling should improve air quality and “save people an estimated $12.7 million in lost fuel,” based on city estimates.
With more than 200,000 grade crossings across the United States, the grants will address only a small portion of the problem. Other communities and rail crossings will be selected in each of the next four years to receive the federal aid.
“We’re really glad we’re going to be able to see the benefits in terms of safety and in terms of convenience and goods movement that come with getting rid of these crossings,” Buttigieg said. “They can be a headache and even a risk in communities of all sizes.”