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Last Week’s Westbury Crash Took Place At LI’s 45th ‘Most Likely To Have A Collision’ Rail Crossing; But There Are More Than 290 Other LI Crossings That Are On The Same Risk List & Some Dangerous Crossings Await …And Await…Safety Upgrades

Schumer Announces Plan To Reintroduce Rail Crossing Plan That Would Help Fund Education, Engineering & Enforcement To Tackle Dangerous Crossings

Schumer: A New Push To Fix Dangerous Rail Crossings Could Put Safety Back On Track For Many Communities    

Standing at one of Long Island’s risky rail crossings and amidst renewed concern regarding the safety of almost 300 in total, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer announced, today, that he will push a plan to help Long Island, and other communities, fund needed improvements to such crossings. Schumer said that many of Long Island’s rail crossings are on a federal ‘risk’ list, but that upgrades and improvements to many of those crossings is unaffordable for local communities to foot entirely on their own. He detailed a legislative plan and a partnership with Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut, to help fund needed improvements that can save lives and prevent injury.

“When it comes to risky rail crossings, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. “What I mean, specifically, is that if the federal government were to take their list of dangerous crossings and help create a process that can fund some much-needed improvements, we’d all be a lot safer. And that is what we are trying to do today: renew the concept that when it comes to risky rail crossings, the federal government is on track with safety, and being a good conductor. So, I talked to Senator Blumenthal last week, and we are going to make a go for this effort nationally. Because what good is the FRA’s list of grade crossing hazards if we can’t do a darn thing to fix them up? The answer is: no good.”

“Grade crossings are accidents just waiting to happen, having already claimed the lives of hundreds. The recent fatal accident in Westbury reinforces the need for the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act that Senator Schumer and I advocated for during a previous Congress. We will reintroduce this legislation again and redouble our efforts to provide federal grants for safer rail crossings,” said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.

Schumer and Blumenthal said many Congressional districts grapple with and understand the dangers of outdated grade crossings ripe for potential hazard, and that this issue is not partisan.   

Specifically, the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act would provide new resources to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), states and communities to make critical engineering and safety upgrades at rail crossings, like installing new lights and signals, particularly at accident-prone crossings. In 2017, 2,105 highway-rail grade crossing collisions killed nearly 280 people nationwide, according to FRA statistics.

Just last week, two LIRR trains, traveling in opposite directions, collided with an SUV that drove around a downed rail crossing gate in Nassau County, NY, killing the 3 SUV passengers and injuring several passengers on the trains. The vehicle first collided with the eastbound train and then collided with the westbound train which was traveling at full speed.

“The awful tragedy last Tuesday reminds us that it is critical that the federal government do even more to research and underwrite safety upgrades at accident-prone crossings – this includes designing ways to prevent going around safety crossings, boosting public awareness of the dangers at such crossings, as well as improving reporting of dangerous problems at crossings,” Schumer added.

“Last week’s fatal LIRR accident in Westbury was a tragic reminder of the horrific dangers that exist at every one of the 5,000 railroad crossings in New York State,” said Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. “Although those of us in government have repeatedly talked about the dangers of driving around downed railroad gates, reminding drivers that ‘you can’t beat the train,’ clearly not everyone is getting that message. Senator Schumer's bill would not only increase public awareness campaigns on this issue, it would also bring new technologies to help prevent people from doing this reckless and potentially deadly maneuver. 

I stand firmly with Senator Schumer on the reintroduction of his Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act and encourage its passage before another life is senselessly lost.”

“The Town of Hempstead has 52 rail-grade crossings, as well as some of the most dangerous crossings anywhere on Long Island, so we are eager to embrace any help that can be provided to better protect the safety and welfare of our residents,” said Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen. “Senator Schumer knows that communities like ours need to make critical engineering and safety upgrades at rail crossings, like installing new lights and signals, and strengthening education and public awareness of the dangers of grade crossings.  I thank Senator Schumer for fighting to protect our residents and look forward to advocating together on this critically important issue.”

“The passage of the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act will provide critical enhancements and resources for the safety of our residents here in Nassau County,” said Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder. “Unfortunately, last week we lost three men from a fatal Railroad crossing accident. With further education and public awareness on the dangers that can be associated with proceeding around gates when they are down. In addition, safety upgrades, new lights, enhanced signals and funding for enforcement are imperative”.

“The Suffolk County Police Department will continue to enhance patrols and utilize the necessary resources to ensure the safety of our motorists and pedestrians. Infrastructure upgrades and additional public safety funds, such as this, complement our efforts to further reduce injuries and fatalities on our roadways,” said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart.

“Accidents at grade crossings pose a danger to motorists, pedestrians and rail passengers alike,” said Mark Epstein, Chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council. “Last week’s tragedy is evidence that much more work is needed. The Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council supports Senator Schumer’s long and vocal history of pushing for increased funding for safety measures at grade crossings and we are grateful that he continues to advocate for LIRR riders.”

“It is important to appreciate that the LIRR Expansion program will not eliminate all LIRR grade crossings which means the Senator’s call for increased funding for these crossings that addresses critical safety issues as well as reliability and efficiency could very well save Long Island lives,” said Kyle Strober, Executive Director, Association for a Better Long Island

In the past 10 years, there have been 95 accidents reported at LIRR crossings which resulted in 21 deaths and as many as 46 injuries, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. In 2017, there were 17 accidents at LIRR crossings, killing two people and injuring five. In 2018, a woman from East Patchogue was killed after her car landed in the middle of the tracks just east of the Northport station. Similarly, in 2017, a 94-year-old man was killed after driving around the gates at a rail crossing just west of the Deer Park station. Schumer today said that many of these deaths are preventable.

According to Newsday, Long Island Rail Road has nearly 300 grade crossings, dozens of which are dangerous like the School Street crossing in Westbury and vulnerable to another accident. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the two rail crossings on Long Island with the greatest likelihood for another accident are Broadway in Bethpage and Carleton Avenue in Central Islip. The Cathedral Avenue rail crossing in Garden City, where Schumer stands today, is on an FRA list of rail crossings ranked by accidents predicted per year and is ranked 59th. The list of rail crossings consists of all 282 LIRR public highway-rail crossings.

The School Street crossing in Westbury, the site of Tuesday’s accident, is ranked by the FRA as 45th most likely to have a collision among the nearly 300 LIRR crossings across Nassau and Suffolk counties, which shows that you don’t need to be ranked 1st on the list to have a real threat of deadly collisions and danger at such crossings. There have been four accidents at the School Street crossing in Westbury since 1981, as indicated in the Federal Railroad Administration’s accident database.

Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to rail safety education, has reported an increase in accidents, injuries and fatalities at rail crossings since 2014, reaching a high of 1,046 fatalities in 2015. Additionally, there were nearly 100 more rail crossing collisions in 2017 than in 2016.

Specifically, legislation would:

  • Provide states and communities with more resources to eliminate collisions at grade crossings, while strengthening and relying on existing programs that have been underfunded and underutilized. 
  • Focus on the “Three E’s” that experts have identified as the best ways to address collisions:

o   ENGINEERING (installing improved lights, signals and signs at crossings and building bridges and tunnels to separate roadways from rail track):

§  Bolster funding for the Federal Highway Administration’s Railway-Highway Crossing program, which receives $220 million a year and provides states with funding for the “elimination of hazards of railway-highway crossings, including the separation or protection of grades at crossings, the reconstruction of existing railroad grade crossing structures, and the relocation of highways to eliminate grade crossings.”  The legislation would increase this amount by $50 million per year for four years.   

§  Revive the FRA’s Rail Line Relocation & Improvement Capital Grant program, which until 2009 had helped states and communities relocate a rail line for safety and other purposes.  The legislation would reauthorize the program and provide $25 million per year for four years and clarify that Congress would fund a rail line’s relocation only for safety purposes. 

o   EDUCATION, ENFORCEMENT, TARGETED ENGINEERING (increasing public awareness of grade crossing dangers and promoting police efforts to reduce violations of traffic laws at crossings):

§  Strengthen the federal government’s partnership with Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit organization that conducts public safety awareness and education campaigns and works with law enforcement officials to prevent fatalities and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights-of-way.

  • Give the FRA additional manpower to focus on rail grade crossing collisions.
  • Require the FRA to analyze new technology the public can use to report dangers at grade crossings.