The major railroads in Virginia -- CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak -- seem to pay very little attention to dangers for motorists at railroad crossings. The rail companies' attitude seem to be, "We're bigger than you are. If you get hurt or killed, it's probably your fault." As a Virginia personal injury lawyer who has handled numerous train-car accidents, I can tell you this type of argument has been used in many cases.
Following is a list of some of the top dangers I've seen at railroad crossings that can lead to the motorist in a car or truck dying or getting seriously injured:
- Problems with visibility where trees, bushes, curves or buildings hide approaching locomotives and cars or trucks from each other.
- Improper or inadequate signage so that drivers do not know whether and where to stop before putting themselves in the path of an oncoming train. This is particularly problematic at grade crossings in Virginia because the state has no law requiring people in vehicles to come to a complete stop at railroad tracks. If you see no red lights or stop signs, the only duty for a driver to prevent a train-car collision is to look and listen at a crossing.
- Poorly constructed and improperly maintained grade crossings where there is either a hump or some physical feature that causes cars, trucks and, especially, motorcycles to have trouble safely crossing tracks and get stuck.
- Too little distance between the main highway and the rail bed, which leaves drivers almost no time before they are in the danger zone for getting hit by a locomotive. This situation is very common at private crossings in rural Virginia, where highways run parallel to the tracks and entrances to residential neighborhoods, driveways and businesses cut across the railroad.
- Improperly functioning signals, gates and lights.
Each of these dangers are potentially the fault of the railroad, which is supposed to use its vast profits to properly maintain grade crossings where they own the right-of-way. None have anything to do with poor driving by a motorist or affect anything a train crew could do to prevent crossing crashes that cause injuries and deaths. Even if a person driving a car and railroad workers do everything in their power to comply with the law and use their best efforts for safety, there can be deadly collisions because of something that the railroad company should have corrected.
There is also much more information in the hands of the railroad companies than anyone else about dangerous crossings, near-collisions and fatalities and injuries on railroad lines. The corporation have the machinery, manpower and materials to find and fix problems at unsafe railroad crossings. Also, rail companies are required by law to send track inspectors through on a frequent basis to make sure everything is safe and in proper order on the railroad tracks. Railroads then have obligations to report dangers threatening train crews and the public. In too many cases, however, the rail companies simply ignore safety issues and treat train-car crashes as if they are just a cost of doing business or something they can blame on the driver, even when a crash was just an accident waiting to happen that should have been prevented.