The National Academies

NCHRP 17-122 [Anticipated]

Evaluation of Trespassing Detection and Warning Systems in the Vicinity of Highway-Rail Grade Crossings

  Project Data
Source: AASHTO Council on Rail Transportation and Indiana Department of Transportation
Funds: $450,000
Staff Responsibility: Bijan Khaleghi
Fiscal Year: 2023

This project has been tentatively selected and a project statement (request for proposals) is expected to be available on this website. The problem statement below will be the starting point for a panel of experts to develop the project statement.

Highway-rail grade crossings have always presented a significant safety challenge for road authorities and railroads across the United States and historically have been the source of most of the railroad-related deaths. Implementation of a dedicated federal funding program in the early 1970s resulted in tremendous reductions in highway-rail grade crossing fatalities, from 888 in 1975 to 197 in 2020, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Still a major focus for safety improvements, highway-rail grade crossings now represent the second highest source of railroad-related fatalities behind trespassing.

Trespassing, including suicides, now represents approximately 70% of all railroad-related deaths and is trending upward. The FRA Office of Safety Analysis data demonstrates trespassing fatalities increasing over 31% the past 10 years to 525 fatalities in 2020, a number far exceeding the 197 fatalities at highway-rail grade crossings. According to FRA, the 9,363 reported trespassing accidents during the 2012 and 2016 period were associated with a societal cost of $43.2 billion in fatalities and injuries and more than $56.0 million losses in travel time delays in trains. Additionally, the FRA reports that about 74% of deaths and injuries related to rail trespassing (excluding suicides) and 73% of suicide attempts occur within 1,000 feet (<0.25 mile) of a highway-rail grade crossing. These incidents occurring in the vicinity of highway-rail grade crossings also cause significant delays to motorists, their passengers, and other roadway users at the crossings.

Crossing the rail property because that provides the most direct route to a desired destination, and trespassers not fully aware of the dangers involved in trespassing behavior, are among the reasons behind most trespassing behavior. Lack of deterrents, poor community planning, and lack of grade crossings in large sections of track all contribute to an increased number of trespassing. Community decisions such as the placement of public buildings, services, and bus stops relative to safe crossing paths could affect people’s choices of trespassing the rail property.

In addition to enhancing law enforcement, education, community, and roadway planning, new technologies can be applied to railroad and highway right-of-way (ROW) to prevent trespassing from happening in the vicinity of highway-rail grade crossings. Surveillance systems can be installed to detect and warn trespassers. At present, there is extensive knowledge concerning how to detect intruders in terms of general security sensitive installations, such as utility plants, banks, etc. However, technologies and systems used to detect trespassers in the vicinity of highway-rail grade crossings are limited and the effectiveness and scopes of implementation of new technologies on such tasks have not been thoroughly evaluated. The unclear effectiveness and range of applications of these detection and warning systems could provide limited, if not misleading, information to decision makers when choosing the appropriate systems to implement. Therefore, systemic evaluations of the trespassing and suicide detection and warning systems along rail ROW particularly in the vicinity of grade crossings has significant impacts on the health of the integrated multimodal transportation system. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Rail-Highway Crossings Program provides funds for “the elimination of hazards at highway-rail grade crossings” and “eligible projects include those involving all public rail crossings: roadways, bike trails, and pedestrian paths.” Half of a state’s apportionment is prescribed for installing protective devices at crossings, while the remaining can be used for other hazard elimination projects, and the installing of detection and warning systems could be an effective solution for preventing trespassing and suicide in the vicinity of grade crossings. Highway authorities have an opportunity to work together with rail authorities to improve the grade crossings safety by choosing and implementing effective detection and warning systems and technologies at grade crossings.

Although there are some existing studies on technologies and systems that can be used for detecting trespassers on rail ROW, the research is either outdated or has only focused on a specific technology prototyped/tested in selected locations. Research on more accurate, efficient, and cost-effective infrastructure-based technologies and systems that can be applied to grade crossings is especially lacking. Considering the extensive railroad lengths in the United States and the overrepresentation of trespassing and suicide events in the vicinity of highway-rail grade crossings, investigation of such technologies and systems that can be applied to grade crossings has significant importance. With newer technologies being available in image detection, radar, LIDAR, infrared, UAV, and so on, it is necessary and urgent to conduct a systemic evaluation of such technologies to be used in detecting and warning trespassers as well as giving advance warnings to rail staff and train operators.

The objective of this project is to identify functional requirements and evaluation methods to aid state DOTs in selecting appropriate systems based on different needs and conditions. The following tasks should be considered:

1. Identify potential intruder detection and warning technologies that can be applied to rail ROW in the vicinity of highway-rail grade crossings.
2. Provide for each of the technologies: engineering description of the necessary hardware and technologies; indication of types of automated warnings; discussion of software and analysis technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence) necessary to interpret and collate data collected to assist with decision-making; and discussion of costs of hardware, software, maintenance and staffing.
3. Investigate the circumstances under which the varied systems and technologies are applicable, including but not limited to funding considerations, environmental characteristics, infrastructure requirements, etc.
4. Provide guidance to decision makers on choosing the appropriate warning systems and the roles and responsibilities of the roadway authority.

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