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In contrast to grade-separated overpasses or underpasses, a highway-rail grade crossing is a location where a road (highway, road, street, etc.) crosses a railway at grade, or when both the road and the railway are at the same level at the crossing point.


This section will cover how to cross railroad lines safely, including legal requirements, emergency procedures, and how spot safety equipment and signage.


Active vs. Passive Crossings


There are two basic types of crossing warning devices for at-grade crossings:


Active warning devices — Active warning devices start up automatically as a train approaches. These tools include gates and other tangible obstacles, bells, sirens, flashing lights, traffic signals, and message boards. Compared to passive devices, active gadgets provide more protection.

Passive warning devices — A train's approach is not announced by passive warning systems. The purpose of passive devices is to draw the driver's attention to the crossing so they may drive carefully. Crossbuck signs, stop signs, yield signs, pavement markings, and lights that flash continuously are some examples of these devices.


Nearly three-fourths of all highway-rail crossings in the US feature traffic control or passive warning systems. That means it's your responsibility as the driver to check to see whether any trains are coming before you cross.


Engineering Considerations


At both active and passive highway-rail grade crossings, several technologies are used to reduce accident risks. You must be aware of how these technologies seem and what they are attempting to communicate to you to utilize them appropriately. These technological advancements include barriers, bells, gates, and flashing lights.


An overview of the most popular engineering tools is provided here.


Crossbuck signs — One of the earliest types of warning signs is the crossbuck sign. Before the train tracks, there is a white regulation X-shaped sign with the words "Railroad Crossing" in black script.


On each approach to the highway-rail grade crossing, the crossbuck sign is often put on the right-hand side of a public route. A crossbuck sign is the same as a "Yield" sign and is a passive yield indication. At all open highway-rail grade crossings, a crossbuck sign is necessary.


Advance warning sign — A circular, yellow warning sign with a black "X" and "RR" is known as a warning sign. To warn drivers of the crossing, these signs are placed beside the roadway before the crossing.


When approaching a highway-rail grade crossing, you often notice the warning sign first.


Flashing light signal — When triggered, a flashing light signal, which is a device mounted on a typical pole, shows red lights flashing alternately. At a highway-rail grade crossing, flashing light signals indicate the presence or approach of a train and demand that all vehicles stop completely.


With gates, flashing light signals are required. The gate arm light closest to the tip will be continually lit while both are active, and the other two lights will alternately flash in time with the flashing light signals. The usual side-of-the-roadway flashing light signal assembly contains a regular crossbuck sign and when there are many tracks, an additional "number of tracks" sign, both of which indicate an impending highway-rail grade crossing. The flashing lights may be controlled in conjunction with a bell that is part of the assembly.


At all kinds of open railroad and highway grade crossings, flashing light signals are present. On all roadway approaches to a crossing, they are usually positioned to the right of the oncoming highway traffic.


Standard bell — When actuated, a standard bell is a device that emits an auditory alert. It may be used in conjunction with gates and flashing light signals, but it works best as a warning to bicycles and pedestrians.


To warn nearby residents of an oncoming train, a regular bell is made to ring loudly. The bell is typically installed atop one of the signal support masts while it is in operation. Whenever the flashing light signals are in use, the bell often rings.


The majority of railways are now using electronic bells, which have adjustable loudness.


Standard gates — A standard gate assembly, which often includes a crossbuck sign, flashing light signals, and other passive warning signs, is an active traffic control device used with flashing lights. It is made up of a drive mechanism and a gate arm with lights that stretch across the oncoming lanes of highway traffic at a height of approximately 4 feet above the top of the pavement when in the down position and is completely reflectorized in red and white stripes. The flashing light indication may be installed individually or on a separate post from the gate mechanism.


The gate arm is in an erect, vertical position when no trains are coming or using the crossing. In a typical operation, the moment a train is detected, the flashing light signals and the lights on the gate arm in its upright position are both turned on. The gate arm is made to descend within three seconds of the signal lights turning on, to horizontally position itself before the arrival of any train, and to stay in that position during the duration of the train's occupancy of the crossing. The gate arm rises to its upright position when the train has passed the crossing and no additional trains are coming.


Long arm gate — A long arm gate is structured the same.


The intent of the longer arm is to reduce the driver’s ability to run around the gates. A long arm gate will cover at least 75 percent of the roadway.


Four quadrant gates — To fully close off the junction, these gate assemblies contain an extra set of dual gate arms. On each side of a bi-directional crossing, gate arms are lowered to prevent prospective gate violators from driving past the gates.


The regular gate assembly and the long arm gate share many mechanical characteristics with the four quadrant gates. The gate mechanisms and gate arms on all three of the gate assemblies are designed to alert approaching vehicles to the presence of a train. By lowering the gate arm when a train is detected, they prevent cars from approaching a highway-rail grade crossing.


Barrier gates — Barrier gates are a brand-new kind of warning gate that, when lowered, locks onto a post to stop cars from driving past them at a crossing.


Median barriers — A prefabricated mountable island that is put in the middle of the road going up to a highway-rail grade crossing makes up median barriers. The barrier acts as a barrier, preventing a car from trying to drive past a crossing gate arm. The curb barrier is equipped with paddle delineators that have black and yellow reflectors. The delineators are fixed to either concrete or a rubber boot. If a road isn't broad enough for a median barrier, yellow and black tubular markings positioned on the centerline of the road may be utilized instead.


Wayside horns — A wayside horn is a stationary, train-horn-like horn device that is actuated by the railroad-highway grade crossing warning system. Instead of being installed on the locomotive, it is placed at the crossing to provide drivers and pedestrians a longer, louder, and more consistent aural warning while also reducing noise pollution throughout the rail corridor for more than half a mile.


Exempt sign — This sign is placed in advance of and at crossings authorized by state law or regulation to inform placarded hazardous materials vehicles, buses, and other highway users that a stop is not required, except when a signal, train crew member, or uniformed police officer indicates that  a  train,  locomotive,  or  other  railroad equipment is approaching the crossing.


Yield sign — Right-of-way is assigned via the yield sign. A yield sign requires that automobiles stay out of the path of other moving vehicles, including trains, which are granted the right-of-way.


Do not stop on tracks sign — A regulation notice in black and white is posted at a crossing when engineering research or practical application indicates that there is a high likelihood of cars halting on the tracks.


Stop sign —  A halt sign is a typical, red regulation sign with letters that are used to indicate when motor vehicle traffic must stop. This sign may be put up at the crossing to make it clear that all cars must stop completely before proceeding over the railroad lines.


Tracks out of service sign — If a railroad track has been abandoned or its usage has been ended, this sign should be used at a crossing in place of the crossbuck.


Parallel track sign — A yellow warning sign in the form of a diamond is posted on a road that runs beside train lines to alert drivers that the route will soon cross those rails. This sign is designed to alert drivers that there will be a railroad-grade crossing just after the turn.


Low ground clearance sign — This new symbol sign for railroad grade crossings when the circumstances are sufficiently sudden to cause a hang-up of long wheelbase vehicles or trailers with low ground clearance is especially important to truck drivers.


Number sign — A sign specifying the number of tracks will be on the post underneath the crossbuck at multiple-track crossings.


Pavement markings — To inform, warn, or direct traffic, the white letters "R&R" might be engraved into the pavement's surface, painted on it, or mounted to it before a crossing.


Regulatory Considerations


According to Sec. 392.10 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, drivers of the commercial motor vehicles listed below must always stop before crossing railroad tracks:


  1. A passenger-carrying bus.

  2. A commercial motor vehicle transporting any quantity of a Division 2.3 chlorine.

  3. A commercial motor vehicle required to be marked or placarded with one of the following markings:


  • Division 1.1;

  • Division 5.1;

  • Division 2.2;

  • Division 2.3 Chlorine;

  • Division 6.1 Poison;

  • Division 2.2 Oxygen;

  • Division 2.1;

  • Class 3 Combustible liquid;

  • Division 4.1;

  • Division 5.1;

  • Division 5.2;

  • Class 8

  • Division 1.4.

  • Division 1.2, or Division 1.3;

  • Division 2.3 Poison gas;

  • Division 4.3;

  • Class 7;

  • Class 3 Flammable.



4. A cargo tank motor vehicle used to carry any hazardous substance as defined by the Hazardous Materials Regulations, whether it is loaded or empty (Parts 107 through 180).

5. A cargo tank motor vehicle that is conveying a product whose temperature, as determined by Section 173.120, is above its flash point at the time of loading.

6. An automobile with a cargo tank that is carrying any product covered by an exemption following the rules of Part 107 Subpart B, whether it is loaded or unloaded.


Before crossing at grade railroad tracks, these vehicles must first:

  • Stop the commercial motor vehicle within 50 feet of, and not closer than 15 feet to, the tracks;

  • Listen and look in each direction along the tracks for an approaching train;

  • Determine that no train is approaching;

  • When it's safe to do so, move the commercial vehicle over the tracks in a gear that enables it to do so without changing gears (Do not shift gears while crossing the tracks).

You are not required to stop at the following:

  • A streetcar crossing or railroad lines located within a commercial area, as defined in Section 390.5, that is utilized only for industrial switching operations.

  • When a police officer or crossing flagman urges traffic to continue at a railroad-grade crossing.

  • A railroad grade crossing that is signaled by a working traffic light on a highway that transmits a green signal, allowing commercial vehicles to cross railroad lines without stopping or slowing down following local regulations.

  • A railroad grade crossing that has been abandoned and is denoted by a sign stating as much.

  • An industrial or spur line railroad grade crossing marked with a sign reading “Exempt.”


Slowing required — At railroad crossings, operators of commercial motor vehicles that are not covered by Section 392.10 must at the very least slow down. Following Section 392.11, when approaching a railroad-grade crossing, these vehicles must be driven at a speed that will enable them to stop before they reach the crossing's closest rail. They also must not be driven across the crossing until "due caution" has been used to ensure that the course is clear.


Penalties — There may be serious repercussions for breaking the rules regarding train crossings. According to the Part 383 commercial driver's license (CDL) requirements, a CDL-holding driver may lose their license if they are found guilty of violating the rules at a railroad grade crossing. Disqualification refers to the temporary loss of your license, as in the following examples:

  • A first-time offender faces a minimum 60-day suspension;

  • A second conviction within three years results in a minimum 120-day disqualification; and

  • A third or subsequent conviction within three years results in at least a one-year suspension.


The following are the violations which could result in disqualification

  • Although the driver is not always compelled to stop, they neglect to verify that the tracks are free of an oncoming train by slowing down;

  • If the tracks are not clear, the vehicle is not necessarily obligated to stop, but does not do so before coming to the crossing;

  • Despite constantly being obliged to halt, the car enters the crossing without stopping;

  • The motorist lacks enough room to pass through the crossing entirely without stopping;

  • The driver disobeys a crossing enforcement officer or traffic control device's orders;

  • The lack of enough under-carrier clearance causes the driver to miss a crossing.


Safety Considerations


The regulations requiring you to slow down or stop at railroad crossings are the bare minimum requirements. As a professional driver, you need to do more. The following are some of the “best practices” you should follow when traversing highway-rail grade crossings, in addition to the regulatory requirements.

  • Never fail to be alert when you approach a crossing, even if you cross it every day and have never seen a train at that crossing.

  • Check for traffic behind you and make sure they know your intentions.

  • Use a pull-out lane, if available. Turn on your flasher in traffic, if necessary.


  • Choose an escape route in the event of brake failure, unexpected problems, or traffic tie-ups in front of or behind you.


  • If required to stop, stop between 15 and 50 feet from the nearest rail.


  • Roll down your window and turn off the fan, radio, CB, and other noisy equipment to better hear a train.


  • When slowed down or halted, keep a close watch out for approaching trains in both directions. Move your head and eyes to see behind obstacles like mirrors, pillars, and windshields.


  • Watch out for optical tricks. When you stare down the tracks at an oncoming locomotive, it's simple to misjudge its speed since the train will seem smaller and slower than it is. When staring down the tracks, it is almost hard to determine a train's speed with any degree of accuracy. Assume that a train cannot stop in time to avoid you if you can see it coming. Be considerably more cautious at passive crossings and night.


  • Set your emergency brakes while waiting for a train to pass to prevent veering into the track.


  • Even if you can't see a train coming, obey all rail-crossing signals and never drive past a gate that has been lowered. If you believe that the railroad signals are broken, get in touch with your dispatcher, or the police in your area, or, if an 800 number is displayed at the crossing, choose another route.

  • Keep an eye out for more trains. Be alert for any signage showing how many tracks are involved at a crossing as you get close to it. Don't assume the crossing is clear when the first train passes if there are numerous tracks involved. Before beginning to cross, wait until you can see down all the tracks to make sure no additional trains are coming on a separate track.

    • If you operate a low-bed trailer, such as a moving van, vehicle carrier, or lowboy, you may not have adequate clearance to pass certain grade crossings. Sometimes there are no signs at these "hump" crossings. When in doubt, go back and locate a different crossing.


    • Don't commit if it won't fit. At railroad crossings, each driver must be aware of the dimensions of their vehicle and the "containment area," or the space that is available on the other side of the tracks. Make that there is adequate space to properly clear the tracks if a crossing has a stop sign or traffic signal on the other side. Don't start crossing if there is any uncertainty regarding the available space. If you often travel a certain route, get familiar with the highway-rail grade crossings it has and how your vehicle fits through them.


    • Check the crossing signals one final time before proceeding.


    • When there is a safe lull in the flow of traffic, signal and re-enter the road if you have stopped in a pull-out lane. Be prepared for other lanes of traffic to pass you.


    • Select the highest gear that won't need you to change while you're crossing the rails. Never change gears when crossing railroad tracks.


    • If, after crossing the rail, the red lights at the intersection start to flash, keep going. At least 20 seconds before the train comes, the lights need to start flashing.


    • If you're transporting heavy goods like steel or logs, you should particularly be mindful of overhang—both yours and the train. Avoid having your "tail" dangling over a track. You must be far outside the track to be safe since trains also extend over the rails by at least three feet on each side.


When stopped, it will take you at least 14 seconds to clear a single track and more than 15 seconds to clear a double track when towing a 53-foot trailer at 80,000 pounds on a level road with excellent surface conditions.


If you get stuck on the tracks, you should follow the steps listed below.


  • Get out of the vehicle immediately. Take your cell phone (if available).

  • To prevent being close to the site of the collision, move far away from the vehicle in the direction of any incoming trains.

  • Locate and dial the emergency phone number that is listed at the crossing. Signal someone to come over if you don't have a phone.

  • Give your exact location, using landmarks and the DOT number from the crossing.

  • If there is no posted emergency number, call the police or 911 immediately.




You learned about the significant risks involved with navigating highway-rail grade crossings in this chapter. You also learned about the various engineering controls that may be present at these crossings and their intended use, the laws requiring you to stop and/or slow down at these crossings, and the "best practices" you should employ to approach, examine, and cross railroad tracks safely. This knowledge is critical in obtaining your ELDT certificate.

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