OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — With the rail industry relying on longer and longer trains to cut costs, the Biden administration is handing out $570 million in grants to help eliminate numerous railroad crossings in 32 states.
The grants announced Monday will help build bridges or underpasses at the sites of more than three dozen crossings that delay traffic and sometimes prevent first responders from getting to where help is desperately needed.
In some places, trains regularly stretching over 2 miles (3.2 km) in length can block level crossings for hours, cutting off access to parts of cities and forcing pedestrians to attempt the dangerous act of climbing in trains that could start moving without warning.
“We see countless stories of people unable to get to work on time, of goods being prevented from getting where they need to be, and of first responders being held up by those trains that can be slowed down or stopped – even seeing images of ‘children having to crawl between or under freight trains to get to school,’ said US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
In one case mentioned by Buttigieg, a Texas mother called 911 because her 3-month-old baby was in distress, but an idle train prevented the ambulance from arriving quickly and the baby died in hospital two days later.
In addition to the problems associated with blocked crossings, approximately 2,000 collisions are reported at crossings each year. Nearly 250 deaths were recorded last year in these car-train accidents. In one case cited by Buttigieg, a woman in California found herself stopped on the tracks after traffic slowed and she was killed when a train slammed into her vehicle.
In recent years, major freight railways have overhauled their operations to rely on fewer and longer trains so they can use fewer crews and locomotives as part of cost-cutting efforts.
The railroads insist the changes haven’t made their trains riskier, but regulators and Congress are scrutinizing their operations after several recent high-profile derailments. And the problems at crossings are well documented.
These grants are part of $3 billion in funding approved in the $1 trillion Infrastructure Act for these crossing projects to be distributed over the next five years.
A number of the 63 projects that will receive grants involve only planning and design work to eliminate level crossings in the future, but the bulk of the money will go towards physical improvements to level crossings and the elimination of long-standing problems.
Buttigieg said he plans to travel to Grand Forks, North Dakota on Monday to highlight a $30 million grant helping pay for a project near the University of North Dakota campus that will improve access to the local hospital.
A grant worth nearly $37 million will help eliminate four railroad crossings in Houston, which has the second highest number of crossing fatalities in the nation. The four new underpasses to be constructed will reduce traffic delays and improve pedestrian safety.
A $7.2 million grant will help improve access to an area of Fostoria, Ohio known as the Iron Triangle because it is bordered on three sides by railroad tracks. A CSX train passes through the community about once every 26 minutes, with crossing warning sirens sounding for at least two hours a day. A new bridge will be built over the tracks on one side of the neighborhood to provide a safe route through the area.
In each of these grants, states and cities—sometimes with help from the railroads—must cover at least 20% of the cost of the project.