Thomas The Tank Engine Meets A Car — Liability For Railroad Crossing Collisions

There’s been some recent news coverage regarding Union Pacific Railroad’s request that Des Moines close off several streets on the east side of the city to eliminate train-vehicle intersections.  One reason for Union Pacific’s request is to avoid the traffic backups and delays that occur when a train is slowly rumbling through that area.  Another concern is safety.  The chances of people getting hurt or killed in a train-vehicle collision can be reduced or eliminated if traffic no longer intersects the tracks.  But, as long as vehicle traffic is crossing those tracks, what are the laws that govern train-vehicle intersections when cars or motorcycles are crossing the tracks?

Railroads are required to put “crossbuck” signs at railroad crossings to warn people to look out for trains.  The signs must be white with the words “RAILROAD CROSSING” in large and distinct black lettering.  And, in most instances, trains must also sound their horn at least 1000 feet before the train reaches a railroad crossing.  After sounding the horn, the train must ring the train bell until the train is past the crossing.  Speed limits for trains may be set by municipal code or ordinance; in the absence of a speed restriction railroads are required to use ordinary care as to the speed of their trains at road crossings.

Unless a railroad crossing is extra hazardous, all that is required as a warning to travelers are signs and sounding the train horn and bell.  In deciding whether the crossing is extra hazardous, railroads should consider unusual conditions like heavy traffic, anything that would interfere with visibility, and similar circumstances.  If a crossing is extra hazardous the railroad must have either electronic flashing signals or a flagman there to warn travelers.  It is because of those general principles that rural crossings usually have just the “crossbuck” sign while city crossings often  have both the sign and flashing lights and perhaps even a crossing gate that can be raised and lowered.

Please note that, even if there’s no warning of an approaching train, drivers of vehicles approaching a railroad crossing are not permitted to simply blast through it.  A driver of a motor vehicle is required to use ordinary care in looking and listening for trains in driving toward a railroad crossing.  This must be done at a time and place when the vehicle can be stopped if a train is seen or heard.


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