Monday's Amtrak crash was the third such incident at a grade crossing in just over a month, and two U.S. Senators have already announced legislation aimed at reducing them.
A northbound Amtrak train traveling from Charlotte to New York collided with a truck early Monday afternoon, injuring 40 passengers in the subsequent derailment. No fatalities have been reported in the crash, but Amtrak has since confirmed that the truck in question was on the tracks at a grade crossing approximately 30 miles north of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. This marks the third high-profile highway-rail grade crossing collision in the U.S. in just over a month, following the February 24 Metrolink crash in Ventura County outside Los Angeles, which injured dozens, and the deadly Metro-North collision on February 3.
Highway-rail grade crossings, sometimes referred to as level crossings, are pretty much exactly what they sound like—points at which railroad tracks cross public or private roadways, trails, or paths at the same grade or level. A non-grade crossing, for instance, occurs when a railway line crosses over or under a roadway via a bridge or tunnel. So it's not at all surprising that grade crossings are the most likely type of crossing to be involved in serious railway collisions: According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there are over 212,000 highway-rail grade crossings across the United States, and in 2013, 2,096 collisions at grade crossings killed over 200 people nationwide.
In the wake of the Metro-North tragedy, New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal announced legislation aimed at reducing highway-rail grade collisions. But the truth is that the FRA's Highway-Rail Crossing and Trespass Prevention Division has been working to improve grade crossing safety for years now. And they've had some success: According to FRA data, the number of fatalities associated with rail crossings has gone down by 54 percent over the last two decades.
Still, Monday's collision, which early eyewitness reports suggest was caused by a tractor-trailer driver attempting to make a sharp right turn across the tracks who then got stuck and had to bail out of the vehicle, is likely to keep pressure on federal officials over the issue of grade crossing safety. Passenger train collisions account for just a tiny fraction of this country's transportation-related injuries and fatalities, but they sure are visceral when images of them hit the news.