January 31, 2020Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook

What's New in the Third Edition

The Third Edition of the Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook was officially published in July 2019, authored by Brent D. Ogden and Chelsey Cooper of Kimley­Horn and Associates, Inc. This article provides a summary of the guidebook, how it’s different from prior editions, and a few highlights that stood out to me.

The First Edition of the Handbook dates back to 1978, and the Second Edition of the Handbook was published in 1986. A revision of the Second Edition of the Handbook was published in 2007. The latest edition is referred to as the Third Edition of the Handbook. It is interesting to note that the Third Edition has a new name, Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook.

Similar to the previous Handbooks, the Foreword of the new publication states that “this document does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation and the contents of this document do not necessarily reflect official policy of the U.S. Department of Transportation.” So, the publication is clearly NOT a standard nor should it be considered a policy of the Federal Highway Administration. The intent of the publication is to provide a compilation of current best practices relative to highway-rail crossings. As stated in the Report’s Documentation Page, “the guidelines identified and potential alternative improvements presented in this handbook reflect current best practices nationwide.”

Changes From Prior Editions

The Third Edition has numerous changes when compared to the previous editions of the Handbook, and it is obvious that the new publication is much more slanted toward traffic engineering issues. In general, it appears that many issues like driver responsibilities, sight distances, crossing maintenance responsibilities, and traffic control device installation are more clearly addressed. In addition, the authors of the publication state in the Introduction that “the Handbook provides an update to and supersedes the Guidance on Traffic Control Devices at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings originally developed in 2002 by the … Federal Highway Administration.”

Highlights of the Third Edition

#1: Crossing Geometry

The Handbook refers to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Green Book for guidance. Consistent with the Green Book, the Handbook indicates that crossings ideally should not be located on horizontal curves and the highway should cross the railroad at an angle as close to 90 degrees as possible. Relative to vertical alignment, the Handbook agrees with the Green Book that the crossing should be as level as possible. The suggested AASHTO profile of no more than a 3-inch rise or drop at a distance of 30 feet from the nearest rail is presented as a guideline to accommodate a wide range of vehicles with long wheelbases and low ground clearance. The Handbook also mentions that this “flat” profile is ” … for new construction.”

As expected, the Third Edition of the Handbook discusses the desire for adequate sight distance at railroad crossings. Three sight distances are discussed, stopping sight distance, corner sight distance, and clearing sight distance.

Figure 5 and Table 2 in the Handbook illustrate these sight distances. Stopping sight distance is essentially the amount of sight distance an approaching motorist needs to see the crossing ahead and have adequate time and distance to stop before reaching the crossing. Clearly, this sight distance should be provided by the owner of the highway.

Corner sight distance is the distance along the railroad either to the approaching motorist’s right or left which allows the motorist to see an approaching train. While it may be desirable to have extensive corner sight distances available, view obstructions often exist on private property within these sight triangles to block views of trains and these obstructions are difficult, if not impossible, to remove. The Handbook recognizes this dilemma and states that “Where restricted sight distances exist, motorists should reduce speed and be prepared to stop no less than 15 feet before the near rail, unless and until they are able to determine, based upon the available sight distance, that there is no train approaching and it is safe to proceed.” Hence, the driver is responsible for determining the speed at which he/she should approach the crossing, and based on available sight distance, that speed may be zero (or stopping) in advance of the crossing.

The Handbook does not indicate in any manner whatsoever of the need or requirement for the massive corner sight distances that are mentioned in the AASHTO Green Book. These massive corner sight distances are included in the Appendix as one of the evaluation tools to be used when conducting a diagnostic study of a railroad grade crossing.

Clearing sight distances are based on the size of the vehicle at the crossing and the speed of the train approaching the crossing. The distance is based on the assumption that a driver will need sufficient sight distance along the railroad tracks to the driver’s left and right so that if the driver, after stopping in advance of the crossing, begins to cross the railroad without a train in sight, he/she will have adequate time to clear the crossing IF an approaching train appears within the available sight distance as the driver initiates the crossing maneuver. This sight distance typically requires adequate clearance of railroad right-of-way, unless the railroad is on a horizontal curve extending away from the crossing. For a passenger car, the amount of sight distance in feet is about 10 times the speed of the train in mph (10 times 50 mph is 500 feet). This sight distance provides the driver about 7 seconds of time to clear the crossing.

#2: Crossbuck Assembly

The Handbook also discusses the requirement of a “Crossbuck Assembly” at all passive railroad crossings. A public passive railroad crossing must have crossbucks as well as a STOP or YIELD sign installed on both approaches to the crossing, as required by the 2009 edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Discussion within the Handbook relative to funding railroad crossing improvements focus on federal, state and local funding. There is little reference to railroad funding other than a willingness of railroad to volunteer to participate if the railroad receives some benefit from the project.

The Handbook has much discussion about responsibilities for maintenance, management, and operations at railroad grade crossings. Again, the discussion is very clear that the railroad is responsible for the traffic control devices installed AT the crossing and for the crossing surface. The public entity is responsible for all traffic control devices placed in advance of the crossing and for the roadway approach to the crossing surface. There is a reference to the railroad being responsible for maintaining the road surface ” … for several feet outside of the rail proper, depending upon State law.”

The Handbook does not address private railroad crossings except for one page, which is more of a list of typical types of private railroad crossings. The Handbook encourages the closure of private railroad crossings.

#3: Statistical Material

Two tables in the Appendix list fatalities at public railroad crossings from the year 1920 to 2017, and collisions, fatalities, and injuries at public crossings from 1975 to 2017. These statistics clearly show that the nationwide federal and state efforts to make railroad grade crossings safer, which began in the 1970’s, has been enormously successful. Clearly, any argument that a railroad company should conduct a safety program to improve railroad grade crossings outside of this highly successful program is ludicrous. It makes more sense to continue supporting the current safety program rather than compete with it.

Feel free to reach out to me to further discuss my comments on the Handbook. The full Handbook can be found on FHWA’s website.