Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad

OMAHA, Neb. – One of the commonly held misconceptions is that railroads decide where and what types of highway crossing signals are installed.

In reality, the process is governed by a federal program since crossing signals are defined by the Federal Highway Administration as highway control devices, not railroad signals.

Railroad crossing signal installations and signal upgrades primarily are funded by federal safety funds, originally through “Section 130 funding,” but more recently under other titles. The states receive an allocation of federal money each year for grade crossing improvements.

Each state is tasked to develop a system to determine a priority list for crossing safety improvements. The factors, which can vary from state to state, include such elements as train speed, train volume, average daily traffic and accident history, are calculated by formula.

Once a state determines which crossings are to be upgraded, it contacts the railroad, which meets with state representatives on site to review the project. The process is defined as a “diagnostic.” The railroad then designs the circuitry for the specific crossing and determines a cost estimate. The state reviews the estimate and once it approves it, issues an agreement to the railroad to install the desired signals.

Union Pacific averages about 400 diagnostic projects annually on its 23-state system.

Federal funds pay 90 percent of the cost of a signal installation with the local government jurisdiction-city, county, etc. – paying the other 10 percent. The railroad maintains the signals from that time forward, which usually equals the cost of the initial installation in about 10 years.

The railroad cannot, on its own, install crossing signals. It is required to get state permission.

The cost of a basic flashing light with gates crossing signal is about $142,000. Costs will vary depending on the complexity of the crossing and the sophistication of the equipment needed to meet the desired safety levels.

Generally it takes about a year from the time a crossing is identified for work to go through the complete process.

Ultimately, of course, the safest crossing is no crossing. An on-going goal of the railroad is to close unnecessary crossings. On Union Pacific’s system alone more than 1,000 crossings have been closed in the last four years.

In areas where grade separations – either underpasses or overpasses – are planned, funding methods vary. The cost can range from a low of about $8 to $10 million to much more, depending on the complexity of the site.

If the project involves a federal highway and the existing crossing has electrical warning devices, the railroad is required to pay 5 percent of the “theoretical” cost. Theoretical means from the point of where the roadway starts over or under to the end of the project on the other side. If the roadway is to be widened or other improvements added, such as a cloverleaf at one end, the railroad’s share is not based on the additions, just the original configuration. The 5 percent charge is based on the anticipated savings the railroad will achieve by not having to maintain the crossing signals that can be retired by the project.

If the separation is not a federal project, state and local government fund the cost since it is understood that the benefit is to the motoring public, not the railroad. If it is agreed that there is some operational benefit to the railroad, it can assist. In California, the railroad is required to pay 10 percent of the cost.