Philbrick: Keeping train tracks separate keeps people safe
An example of grading separation. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last year, 1,889 highway-rail grade crossing collisions occurred in the United States. In California, 40 individuals lost their lives in these collisions, and 55 more were injured. And while rail collisions are declining—there were more than 3,500 collisions in 2010 for comparison—there are still nearly 2,000 preventable deaths occurring each year.

Public awareness campaigns and education play a critical role, but the first and most important step to mitigating these deaths and injuries is designing and constructing with safety in mind. When it comes to rail, grade separation significantly improves safety and decreases the risk for preventable injuries and fatalities.

Grade separation is a technique that separates trains from road vehicles and pedestrians by using distinct physical levels. This method may entail a track bridge over the road or an underpass, for example.

According to the Bay Rail Alliance, “the benefits of grade separation include zero possibility of auto-train collisions, reduced traffic congestion, no horn noise and ability of running more trains without impacting on cross traffic.” Grade separation is a critical tool for safety, especially in areas expected to have high pedestrian, auto and rail traffic such as the proposed Howard Terminal A’s stadium in Oakland.

In its current iteration, the Howard Terminal project is designed around a 35,000-person capacity ballpark. In addition, plans include a 400-room hotel, another entertainment venue for 3,500 patrons, up to 3,000 residential units, up to 1.5 million square feet of commercial space and more. A serious concern comes not from the proposed bustling ballpark and retail spaces, but rather the proximity to rail services and the lack of planning in the project for related safety concerns.

To access the stadium, patrons need to cross heavy rail tracks at grade (on the same ground level) at all five nearby rail crossings. Moreover, the crossings directly in front of Howard Terminal are normally occupied by switching freight trains entering the adjacent railyard, multiple times a day. Freight trains must frequently remain stationary for up to 45 minutes at a time, and motorists, pedestrians and cyclists impatient with the delay might be tempted to engage in dangerous behavior to regain access to the road.

Robert Padgette, managing director of Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor (CCJPA) service which runs trains between Sacramento and San Jose via Oakland, expressed his concern: “What behaviors patrons will exhibit before or after events in such a scenario has grave implications for the safety and operations of trains along the entire CCJPA route.”

In the past, even before the proposed project that will undoubtedly increase traffic in the area, injuries and deaths have occurred. Some have compared the potential situation to that at Petco Park in San Diego, where impatient Padres fans have attempted to climb over and under stopped freight trains—only to have them suddenly start moving again.

Recently, a coalition of businesses, labor unions and trade associations who depend upon the Port of Oakland came together to comment on the draft environmental impact report for the proposed ballpark at Howard Terminal to draw attention to these significant safety concerns. This coalition, which includes Union Pacific Railroad, argues the draft report is “inadequate in numerous respects and fails to both analyze and mitigate numerous significant environmental impacts.”

While the coalition comments that numerous environmental impacts are not properly addressed, including the project’s “interference with the Port and its future operations” and “traffic and transportation nightmare,” the principal issue is safety.

The simplest solution to these safety concerns? Grade separations.

The public has recognized the importance of grade separations in improving safety in California for years. The “2018 California State Rail Plan” from the California Department of Transportation included the results of a survey that received 2,189 responses between January and March 2016. The survey asked, “What do you think Caltrans’ highest priority should be for investments to enhance rail safety?” Seventy-two percent of respondents answered, “Improve crossings with grade separations.”

Grade separation’s impact on safety is easy to understand. If the train is physically separated from the road, it is out of reach of pedestrians, cyclists and cars—eliminating the potential for injury and death.

California already boasts several successful grade separation projects, including the Nogales Street and Puente Avenue projects in Los Angeles and the 25th Avenue project in San Mateo. The San Mateo project cost $205.9 million and was completed to improve safety for both pedestrians and motorists and to reduce local traffic congestion. The smaller but equally effective LA projects cost $120.8 million and $95.7 million, respectively.

One hundred million may seem a hefty price tag at first glance, but it’s merely a fraction of the project’s total cost of $12 billion—especially to secure the safety of the ballpark’s patrons and everyone else walking and driving around Jack London Square.

Research indicates that grade separations have the potential to increase economic activity in surrounding areas—not to mention travel time savings, crash reductions and emissions reductions which can all be translated into monetary benefits for cost analysis. A study by the Mineta Transportation Institute found that implementing grade separation at several at-grade crossings in California (e.g. Nursery Ave. in Fremont, Palm St. in San Diego, and H St. in Chula Vista) would yield a very high benefits-to-cost ratio.

However, the ultimate reason to consider grade separation—especially at high-traffic areas like the potential Howard Terminal ballpark? Safety.

The Federal Railroad Administration reports that 94% of fatalities are trespassers. The current Howard Terminal draft environmental impact report proposes fencing along the right-of-way from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to Washington Street to prevent trespassing, but fencing does not eliminate the risk of injury or death. Grade separations mean pedestrians would have no need to cross the railroad tracks, thus removing temptation and significantly improving safety.

Grade separations must be reconsidered for the Howard Terminal project’s success. Keeping trains and people separated just makes sense.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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