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FEATURE-US railroads strive for fewer crossings collisions
By Nick Carey

OMAHA, Nebraska, April 10 (Reuters) - Earlier this month, two men were killed when their truck was hit by a New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway (NYSW) train at a crossing in Oakland, New Jersey.

Authorities are still investigating what happened, but official accident investigation reports say the lights were working and other vehicles were stopped at the crossing. For unknown reasons, the truck driver didn't stop.

Incidents like this are becoming less common, U.S. railroads say, but they are still seeking ways to keep the public -- the main cause of accidents -- off the rails.

In 2005, there were 3,010 crossing accidents, causing 355 deaths, down from 12,126 collisions and 917 deaths in 1975, the FRA said. The United States has 240,000 rail crossings.

Railroads cite safety statistics to Wall Street to show how well run they are.

"It's not the first thing investors look at, but safety plays a role," said Stephen Brown, an analyst at rating agency Fitch Ratings. "Few accidents indicate an efficient railroad."

Railway crossing accidents "remain far too high," said U.S. rail regulator Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) spokesman Warren Flatau.

The FRA says highway-rail collisions caused more than 90 percent of rail fatalities in 2005, "upward of 90 percent" of them caused by the people disobeying or ignoring the rules, Flatau said, "often trying to race trains to crossings."

To keep the public away, the railroads say they are physically separating rail from road.

Fred Williams, general manager Midwest division for Kansas City Southern said "wherever possible, we are looking at ways to move the rails either under or above roads to reduce our points of contact."

But underpasses and overpasses cost up to $2 million each, making it "pretty much impossible to remove all crossings," said Mark Schulze, vice president for safety at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. , the second largest U.S. railroad. BNSF has closed 3,000 crossings since 2000, but has more than 30,000 others on its network.

Lance Fritz, a Union Pacific regional vice president, said accidents at rail crossings "block the network," delaying deliveries to customers.

U.S. imports have seen annual double-digit growth since 2003, stretching capacity at railroads, which have not suffered as much as trucking companies from high fuel costs.

"Anything that causes congestion is bad news," Fritz said.

Cameras help railroads investigate causes of congestion, plus whether a train driver, motorist or faulty equipment are responsible for accidents.

UP has installed them on 921 locomotives at a cost of $6,500 each and 2,500 locomotives may eventually get them. Norfolk Southern Corp. has cameras on 1,300 locomotives with a target of 2,500. BNSF has 250 cameras and may add 500 in 2006.

Collectively, these three railroads plus CSX Corp. plan to spend 17 percent more in 2006 than last year on their networks, including safety programs.

Chuck Wehrmeister, Norfolk Southern vice president for safety, said cameras have "helped protect against false claims" from motorists that the railroad caused accidents involving their vehicles.

The railroads say their primary concern is people and are reluctant to discuss how accidents hit the bottom line. Analysts say a series of rail disasters on any one network would harm a company's reputation and its valuation.

"It is not an issue now because the railroads have a good safety record," Fitch's Brown said. "If it worsened significantly the railroads would suffer."

Standard & Poor's analyst Andrew West said U.S. railroads must also focus on safety to avoid political attention.

"If a railroad has too many accidents making the headlines, politicians could use that for political gain," West said.

"If safety becomes a political issue, new regulations are unlikely to follow market principles," he added.

Bob Grimaila, vice president for safety at Union Pacific Corp. , shows a 30-second, black-and-white film -- from a locomotive in Missouri in January, of straight rails in flat woodland. A truck appears on the right, speeding toward a rail crossing marked with the X-shaped "crossbucks" sign common in rural areas. The truck ignores U.S. highway regulations that say trains have the right of way.

Train brakes take several seconds to react, and moving at around 50 miles an hour the train would need a mile to stop.

The train and truck just miss. A few inches closer and the train would have struck the truck.

"We call that a near-hit," Grimaila said.
 
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