The railroad industry and its supervisor, the Federal Railroad Administration, have long maintained that signal malfunctions pose little danger and that accidents caused by them are extremely uncommon. A New York Times computer analysis of government records found that from 1999 through 2003, there were at least 400 grade-crossing accidents in which signals either did not activate or were alleged to have malfunctioned. At least 45 people were killed and 130 injured. Federal rules require that railroads maintain signals on tracks they own, but quite often railroad crossing malfunctions go uncorrected.
The frequency of signal malfunctions is difficult to assess, because railroads do not have to report all malfunctions and because proving that an error occurred is often difficult after an incident. Based upon government data, some 9,500 calls about signals were lodged in 2003 in Texas alone. Chronic signal malfunctions are not only hazardous, but also burdensome for police departments, especially smaller ones, because they must often send officers to safeguard motorists at problem crossings.
Peggy Wilhide, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, played down the significance of signal malfunctions, saying a recent federal report found that the great majority of railroad accidents railroad accidents were caused by unsafe drivers. Ms. Wilhide also stressed that most of the reports of signal malfunctions could not be confirmed. In some cases, records show, railroad workers have accidentally detached the warning system or disabled signals during maintenance without providing alternate ways to warn drivers.
The latter issue was the subject of a 2002 agency advisory. Of the grade-crossing accidents in the New York Times study, nearly 17% involved rail maintenance or inspection equipment that, according to the rail industry is not designed to activate the warning signals.
In the summer of 2002, 27 short signals on the Canadian National tracks in Illinois were reported to the federal database. Some signals were short by only a second or two, but most reports did not specify the length of time. Records show that after the malfunctions were discovered, Canadian National temporarily lowered the allowable train speed for all railroads using the affected tracks. The railroad administration said the problems “were primarily related to deposits from that caused a buildup of material on the rail surface.
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