Buses and Railroad Crossings

Buses are required by law to stop at railroad crossings (except where exempted, such as the light rail tracks on University Avenue in the Twin Cities). This is for safety reasons, the law was implemented in Utah for school buses after a terrible accident. The Deseret News reports:

DeVon Andrus of Cedar City wrote, “I endorse everything said about the safety on school buses. However, there are a few of us who remember a day in December 1938 when the worst school bus accident in the history of the United States occurred in Sandy, Utah. As a result of this accident, laws were passed in every state regulating bus travel when crossing railroad tracks. … Bus drivers were required to stop and open the door, look both ways and listen before crossing the tracks. …”

I know “safety first” and laws like this help keep us all alive, but sometimes they are applied too much.

Railroad Crossing at Franklin Avenue SE

Railroad Crossing at Franklin Avenue SE

There is a railroad crossing on Franklin Avenue in SE Minneapolis which is part of a spur, which used to have very few trains, and now has approximately none since the building it served (Bemis Products) is being converted housing (Brickhouse Lofts). Yet the tracks have not been removed, since the railroad (I suppose) might want to use the spur as a siding to store railcars sometimes.

Dozens of times each day school buses and Metro Transit buses and Metro Mobility buses decelerate, stop, look for non-existent trains, and accelerate again. This wastes time and energy, increases the wear and tear on vehicles, and pollutes the environment (with associated public health effects that probably exceed the safety benefits in these cases).

Is there a way to either (a) get railroads to pull up their unused track and abandon the right-of-way in a more timely fashion, (b) exempt more low volume tracks from the stopping requirement? [Clearly “exempt” signs are allowed, they just don’t seem to be implemented as widely as they might be.]

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10 Responses to Buses and Railroad Crossings

  1. Mike Hicks August 11, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    meh.

  2. Matt Brillhart August 11, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    Someone has to actually contact the railroad and request that they sign it exempt. In this case, you would assume Hennepin County would take care of that request, but then again no one cares about transit.

    Same story for the track crossing 66th Street at Pleasant Ave in Richfield. It’s “active” track, but I’m pretty sure the frequency of trains would be measured by week or month rather than by day. That one has the flashers, trains blow their horns and everything, just no gate arms. Trains rumble through at maybe 10-15mph due to the poor track condition and residential nature of the area. Even worse, bus stops are located just ~100 feet east of the track, requiring buses to stop twice if anyone is boarding or alighting at those stops. The least they could do is move the bus stops close enough for it to also count as stopping at the RR track.

  3. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs August 11, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    The 66th Street railroad crossing generally sees more than weekly trains, and in the summer every couple of days. I don’t think that meets the criteria for an exempt sign, which really applies to tracks that are out of service but not officially abandoned.

    When I worked for Metro Transit I requested that several crossings be made exempt and they were. As Matt says above, someone has to notice and make the request.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele August 11, 2014 at 10:02 am #

      IIRC the FRA has an “industrial spur” category for Exempt requirements, which allows for trains to be more frequent (a few a week) so long as the track speed is 20 MPH or less. My guess is that 66th Street may actually qualify for Exempt signage.

      • Froggie August 11, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

        FRA generally leaves it up to the states how they wish to designate “Exempt” crossings. Section 169.28, Subdivision 2 of the state statutes gives the MnDOT Commissioner the authority to designate crossings as “exempt”. A line that’s been abandoned, or that sees less than 5 trains a year, or where MnDOT and the railroad agree after a “diagnostic review of the crossing”.

        Regarding the last part of the post, there are procedures that must be followed when a railroad abandoned a line…much of it involves the Surface Transportation Board, part of USDOT. I would expect that any significant change to the procedure would require Federal legislation.

  4. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele August 11, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Regarding this spur (which was once a connection between the Milwaukee Road mainline and the Northern Pacific line into Downtown Minneapolis via the NP #9 bridge) I’m hoping a local government can snag this for future transit use. Especially that little segment between 27th Ave and Huron/Essex – may be a valuable piece of a corridor someday.

  5. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary August 11, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    Even on active tracks: haven’t railroad signals improved since 1938? I understand requiring buses and taxis to stop at uncontrolled tracks, or those just marked with a yield sign. But with modern flashers and gate arms, why does the same standard apply?

    Or to put it slightly differently: is a bus driver who does this 20 times a day, when a train never crosses their path, going to notice the sound of a train more reliably than the signals that are designed to detect trains?

    Regarding the Pleasant Avenue railroad crossing in Richfield: it seems weird to me that all crossings are either flasher or stop-controlled (in fact, Richfield just got two new flashers/gate arms at 70th and 76th), considering that there’s not so much as a yield sign for the same tracks on 61st St in Minneapolis. I assume any train going into Richfield would go all the way to the industrial area between 59th and 61st St — so I can’t imagine traffic is any different.

    • Froggie August 11, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

      As was noted a few years ago up in Anoka, even modern signals are not infallible.

  6. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller August 11, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    I’d ask a different question too: does stopping make a meaningful safety difference?

    How much longer does it take a bus that’s flowing with traffic to cross the tracks than other vehicles? It doesn’t seem like it would be much.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 11, 2014 at 10:55 am #

      > How much longer does it take a bus that’s flowing with traffic to cross the tracks than other vehicles? It doesn’t seem like it would be much.

      I don’t think that’s the reason for restriction, since taxis are also required to stop at railroad tracks. I think it’s more the “ride for hire” business. I guess, you’re allowed to endanger yourself, but not people you’re paid to transport. Not sure why a parent transporting their kids doesn’t require this extra super-safety measure, when a taxi driver does, though.

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