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Railroad crossing sign

General Rail Safety Principles

Rail is a safe and efficient way to move both people and goods. Moving goods via freight trains reduces the number of large trucks on our congested highways. Riding a train is more than 23 times safer than traveling by car.

Rail has a solid safety track record. Rail safety is a priority for Washington state, railroads, Amtrak, local communities and non-profit organizations. These and other groups continue to invest in rail improvements to enhance safety.

Rules to Remember 

  • Trains have the right of way. Legally, trains have the right of way. Trains are very heavy and can't stop quickly—even if they're traveling at low speeds. By the time a locomotive engineer can see you or your car, it's nearly always too late for them to stop to avoid hitting you. Trains also can't swerve to avoid you or your car because they travel on tracks. As a result of these facts, trains have the right of way.
  • Never trespass or cross tracks illegally. Railroad tracks are private property, not public trails. It's illegal and dangerous to walk on or near tracks unless you're using a designated crossing. It's also illegal and extremely dangerous ( and DUMB ) to drive around closed crossing gates or to ignore flashing warning lights. Trains travel in both directions on all tracks—so it's impossible to predict which direction a train will approach from.
  • Always expect a train. While you may think you know the schedules of trains that run through your neighborhood, a train can travel on the tracks at any time. Passenger and regularly scheduled freight trains run early or late. Freight trains are needed to carry goods day and night on sporadic runs. Track maintenance work miles away can require dispatchers to adjust usually steady schedules.

Train Speeds 

Who sets train speeds?

Under the authority of law (RCW 81.48.030), the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) in Washington state generally has the authority to set speed limits at all grade crossings in unincorporated areas and in all cities, except those where populations are greater than 100,000 (such as Seattle, Tacoma, or Vancouver, WA). However, federal regulations preempt the state and cities from setting speed limits except where unique local safety conditions exist. As a result, the UTC can set speed limits only where such conditions warrant a deviation from Federal Railroad Administration track safety standards.

Are train speeds going to increase in the future?

Yes. In many communities train speeds will increase, but only in locations where safety standards allow. Faster train speeds:

  • Reduce wait times at crossings for truck and car traffic on local streets.
  • Help businesses that ship by rail.
  • Benefit Amtrak Cascades and commuter rail passengers.

Train speeds usually increase only after track and signal improvements are constructed to ensure trains can run safely. Railroads, Amtrak and WSDOT are working with local jurisdictions and the UTC to improve train safety while increasing freight and passenger train speeds.

Can you tell how fast a train is traveling by looking at it?

No. Because of the size of a train, it appears to be traveling much slower than you think, making the train appear to be farther away than it is. It is impossible to judge the speed of a train under these conditions.

Because of this, vehicle drivers at grade crossings think they can "beat the train." Sadly, this is often not the case. Crossing in front of an oncoming train is always dangerous and many people have lost their lives or been injured as a result. Almost 95 percent of railroad fatalities are motorists at grade crossings, or people who have trespassed on railroad property.

Why do trains have to run so fast? Why can't we just slow them down?

Railroad companies and their customers like to operate trains as fast as good engineering and safety practices allow. Ultimately, time is money in the competitive world of transportation and freight mobility. Requiring slower train speeds would likely have a number of negative impacts, including:

  • More traffic congestion in communities as slower trains block grade crossings for longer periods.
  • Higher transportation costs for the economy as a whole, which translates into higher prices at stores.
  • More trucks on our already-congested roadways as shippers shift their business away from railroads.
  • Passengers clogging highways and airports as train travel becomes less convenient.
  • More incidents as people try to "beat the train" and trespass on railroad tracks.

Who can I contact if I have concerns about train speeds?

The federal government controls most regulations of freight train traffic. For further information contact the federal Surface Transportation Board or the Federal Railroad Administration.

The UTC has limited regulatory authority over railroads and can be contacted at 360-664-1160 or800-562-6150 (in Washington state). For more information on their authority, please visit UTC website.

Grade Crossings and Grade Separations

What are grade crossings and grade separations?

  • A railroad grade crossing is an intersection where a rail line and a roadway (or pathway) cross one another at the same level. To avoid collisions, control devices are required at grade crossings just like intersecting roads need stop signs or traffic signals. Control devices include warning signs, crossbucks (the familiar x-shaped signs), pavement markings, and, in some locations, gates and flashing lights.
  • A grade separation is created when a bridge or tunnel is built to allow the roadway to pass over or under the rail line, completely separating automobiles and other traffic from train traffic.

Who should I call if I'm worried about a grade crossing?

Concerns about traffic backups and delays on the roadway should be directed to the local public works department in the community where the crossing exists, listed in the government pages of the phone book. If a crossing needs additional warning devices or is in need of an upgrade, contact the Utilities and Transportation Commission in Olympia at 360-664-1262.

If crossing warning signals or gates are broken, malfunctioning or need maintenance , contact:

  • In Washington: BNSF Railway Company at 800-832-5452. 
  • In Oregon: Union Pacific Railroad at 800-848-8715.  

Depending on which railroad owns the tracks, one or the other will be able to respond to your concerns.

Who is responsible for crossing signals and safety devices?

Railroads are usually privately owned. Local public works departments coordinate the installation of crossing signals and safety devices with the railroad company. The public works department requests signals and safety/warning devices and lines up money to pay for them. The railroad installs and maintains them. The public works department can request federal money to pay for the cost of signal installation.

When is grade separation required?

Grade separation is required for new road construction and recommended for existing grade crossings when "design thresholds" are exceeded. Design thresholds look at the number of cars and trains traveling through the crossing, train speeds, the number and type of tracks, and how many road lanes there are.

How much does grade separation cost? 

Grade separation is expensive and can be disruptive to neighborhoods, if businesses or homes adjacent to the intersection must be condemned or relocated. Creating grade separation at a single crossing can easily cost $15 to $20 million. There are often less expensive alternatives to grade separation, such as:

  • Upgrading crossing gates and lights.
  • Rerouting local road traffic.
  • Upgrading one crossing while closing adjacent crossings.

Who is responsible for grade separation?

Responsibility for grade separation varies among local, state and federal governments.

Will the state's Amtrak program build grade separations? 

In locations where passenger train speeds exceed 110 mph, Federal Railroad Administration regulations would require grade separation. However, passenger train speeds are not expected to exceed 110 mph within the next 20 years. When this occurs it will be limited and mostly in rural locations.

Where can I learn more about grade crossing safety?

Operation Lifesaver is an international safety program designed to prevent rail-related collisions through educational outreach. To schedule a free presentation about what causes collisions and how to avoid them, call 360-664-1264  . To learn more, write Washington Operations Lifesaver, PO Box 47250, Olympia, WA 98504-7250.

Operation Lifesaver is a non-profit education and awareness program dedicated to ending tragic collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad rights of way. To accomplish its mission, Operation Lifesaver promotes the 3 E's:

  • Education:   Operation Lifesaver seeks to educate drivers and pedestrians to make safer decisions at crossings and around railroad tracks. 
  • Enforcement: Operation Lifesaver works with law enforcement officials to reduce grade crossing and trespassing incidents.
  • Engineering: Operation Lifesaver encourages engineering projects to improve public safety.

Washington state is a very active participant in the Operation Lifesaver program with volunteers educating the public at schools, county and safety fairs, malls, clubs, and professional organizations.

Washington Operation Lifesaver  members include the Utilities and Transportation CommissionWashington State Department of Transportation, Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Washington State Patrol, Amtrak, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway, short-line railroads, All Aboard Washington, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Federal Railroad Administration, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, United Transportation Union, and Sound Transit.