Editor's Note: This article was written for publication in The Newton Kansan, The McPherson Sentinel and The Butler County Times-Gazette.
Nearly half of the railroad crossings in Harvey, McPherson and Butler counties do not have crossing gates, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation. Of the 104 railroad crossings in Harvey County, 42 do not have crossing gates; in Butler County, 46 of its 102 railroad crossings do not have crossing gates and in McPherson County, 54 of the 96 railroad crossings do not have gates.
In 2018, there were 35 vehicle-train incidents across Kansas. Over the past 10 years, the average has been 41 incidents per year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Drivers are instructed to always look for trains — and every railroad crossing is marked with signage.
"Trains everywhere and at all times have the right of way," said Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Ben Gardner. "When you see train tracks, you should be thinking a train is coming, never taking a risk that could kill you. A train will always win in a crash."
According to the Kansas Driving Handbook, drivers must wait for any train or railroad vehicle that is approaching the intersection, remaining behind the stop line or prior to the intersection until it is clear.
At intersections with gate crossings, drivers are not allowed to proceed until the gate is lifted or the lights have stopped.
"While there are several ways a crossing can get upgraded to include gates, the most common way is through the Railway-Highway Crossings Section 130 Program," said KDOT Coordinating Engineer William Sothers. "The Section 130 program is a set-aside of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Highway Safety Improvement Program. This set-aside of safety funds is for the elimination of hazards at railway-highway crossings."
Section 130 projects are funded at a 90% federal share and are eligible for public crossings projects including roadways, bike trails and pedestrian paths. At least half of a state's apportionment goes toward the installation of protective devices at crossings, including at-grade crossings where a railroad intersects with a roadway (as opposed to railways using tunnels or bridges to cross roads).
According to the FHWA, since the beginning of the Section 130 Program in 1987, fatalities at railroad crossings have decreased by 57 percent. That statistic is even more significant with the increase in the vehicle miles traveled on roadways and an increase in both passenger and freight traffic on the railways.
"Annually, KDOT prioritizes all of the public at-grade crossings in the State and addresses those highest prioritized crossings we are able to with the annual amount provided to Kansas through the Section 130 program," Sothers said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration recently announced the recipients of more than $326 million in grant funds under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program and the Special Transportation Circumstances Program. The grants will fund 45 projects in 29 states, including just over $2.5 million for a Rural Railroad Safety Center at Kansas State University.
"These investments in intercity passenger and freight rail will benefit surrounding communities, make grade crossings safer and improve service reliability," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.
Heading up the project will be Eric Fitzsimmons, assistant professor of civil engineering in the Carl R. Ice College of Engineering at Kansas State University. His collaborators are civil engineering faculty members Robert Peterman, professor; and Christopher Jones and Stacey Kulesza, associate professors.
Partner institutions include the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; University of Florida; Pennsylvania State University, Altoona; and California State University, Chico.
"By the end of the three-year grant period, it is our goal to have evolved into a vibrant center for industry-relevant railroad research," Fitzsimmons said. "Additional educational and outreach programs will be in place to train and develop a diverse workforce for the railroad industry and our research outcomes will help ensure the future of the rail industry is as safe and efficient as possible."
The Rural Railroad Safety Center will have four strategic goals:
• Conduct and promote railroad safety research selected by industry partners and the Federal Railroad Administration.
• Develop a comprehensive unified railroad education curriculum to be delivered at all partnering universities.
• Facilitate novel rail-focused outreach activities, including a bimonthly railroad seminar and undergraduate summer research experiences.
• Disseminate research results and technology transfer to be used by the railroad industry via various outlets.
"Our state's economy depends on safe, reliable rail transportation to connect farmers and businesses to the nation and deliver goods to market," said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas). "This grant to establish the Rural Railroad Safety Center at K-State will help solidify Kansas as a leader in rail transportation and share the expertise of officials at K-State with the rest of the country and industry. I was pleased to support efforts to help secure this funding from the Department of Transportation, and look forward to working alongside the university to build and grow this innovative program."
"I often brag that the two things American agriculture does is produce more per acre and get our goods to market cheaper and more reliably than any other country in the world,” said U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas 1st District). "Rail transportation is an important component of this and I’m proud of the work done to support workforce development and ensure future rail industry safety research through the establishment of the Rural Railroad Safety Center at Kansas State University."