Virginia Mercury: $3.2 million in rural rail crossing upgrades increase safety, lay the tracks for high speed rail

VIRGINIA MERCURY, WYATT GORDON

Surrounded by Biden appointees and officials from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Prince William, made the latest announcement of federal funding to flow into the commonwealth from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The ceremony held last month at the Spotsylvania Virginia Railway Express station to celebrate $3.2 million in grants was the culmination of an eight-year-long planning process to improve rural rail crossings and lay the tracks for high speed rail to North Carolina.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger announcing $3.2 million in rail safety upgrades in July 2023. (Connor Joseph)

In 2022, there were 274 fatalities across America resulting from at-grade crossing collisions between trains and cars. Compared with the 42,795 people who died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. last year, everything about trains — including crossing their tracks — is far safer. However, simple safety measures can make such crashes all but impossible.

Although malfunctioning gates and warning lights do cause some collisions at crossings, the vast majority result from impatient drivers who choose to drive around lowered gates thinking they can beat the train. That’s why the latest technology to prevent such crashes is the installation of “four-quad gates.”

With two sets of gates on both sides of the tracks, drivers can no longer swerve around the gates without damaging their car, thus establishing a strong deterrent to risky behavior. The presence of the quad gates means passing trains will no longer be required to blast their horns when approaching the intersections.

The $3.2 million dollars secured by Spanberger after talks with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg will improve four rural at-grade crossings along the Richmond to D.C. rail corridor. Four-quad gates will be constructed at Brent Point Road in Stafford County, Summit Crossing Road in Spotsylvania County, and at Doswell Road and Elmont Road in Hanover County.

The funding is one of the first disbursements from the Federal Railroad Administration’s newly established Railroad Crossing Elimination program.

“This is an example of one of those areas where there is a need on the ground in Virginia we haven’t been able to meet in the past, where now the state and the localities that I represent will have the ability to protect people’s lives, to make our transportation system safer and to do it with grant dollars that were put forward in the federal infrastructure law for this exact purpose,” said Spanberger in an interview.

With over 3,000 miles of train tracks and 9,000 highway-rail crossings across the commonwealth, upgrades to four rural crossings may sound like a drop in the bucket. Once you take away the crossings which are private, grade separated, or closed, that figure drops down to 1,800 — still a relatively large number.

With just 12 deaths from train-car collisions since 2010, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Virginia actually has one of the lowest rates of such fatalities in the nation. For comparison, Texas, California, Illinois, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri each witnessed over a dozen deaths last year alone. The commonwealth’s rail crossings may already be safe, but the Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s director, Jennifer DeBruhl, wants to keep it that way.

“As we work to increase passenger rail and the movement of freight by rail that then puts more opportunities for conflict at these grade crossings,” she said in an interview. “The FRA received an incredible number of applications for this program, so the fact that we brought home this grant to Virginia is not insignificant, because the highway-rail crossing inventory is a dataset that most state departments of transportation are already working off of.”

Since 2015, all states and the District of Columbia have been required by Congress to prepare a grade crossing action plan to help cut down on the number of collisions. After the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021, DRPT officials began working with VDOT to analyze crash history, geometrics and proximity to priority corridors identified in the Transforming Rail in Virginia plans.

The result was an updated Virginia Grade Crossing State Action Plan that positioned the commonwealth to sweep the first round of RCE funding. Knowing the rural part of the program was a priority for the FRA, DeBruhl and her team submitted the package of four crossings along the planned DC2RVA high speed rail corridor.

“We’re not limiting ourselves to rural crossings, but there is a sweet spot in the federal program for rural projects,” she said. “We anticipate another solicitation for projects later this year, so we may submit multiple applications to eliminate conflict points.”

For Spanberger, the choice to hold the press conference at a popular commuter rail station is a reminder of why she fought so hard for the funding in the first place.

“People love the train and love going to D.C., but sometimes it gets delayed, and sometimes those delays are caused by the fact the train has to slow down because there is a car in the way,” she said. “This [$3.2 million set of safety upgrades] is part and parcel of making the I-95 rail corridor more reliable and more straightforward, so the benefit is certainly to people who are passengers on those trains or who might be enticed to be passengers.”

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