A "smart system" that automatically alerts school bus drivers to highway-rail crossings — and if a train is near — is drawing high marks from a Minnesota school district that tested the new technology. The system was tested on 30 school buses at Glencoe School District during six months of the 1997-98 school year. Derald Bielke, Glencoe's transportation manager, said the system required some tweaking in the first few months. Specifically, the signal frequencies were not properly tuned, causing the system to fail to notify drivers of an upcoming rail crossing or to send an alert when none was needed. But the system performed admirably once the bugs were worked out. "Toward the end, everything worked fine," Bielke said. Bielke said his drivers were impressed with the two-level warning system transmitted by the dashboard display, an approximately four-inch-square box. When a bus neared a rail crossing, a yellow-green light flashed. If a train was approaching, a red light also flashed and a beeping could be heard. At best, the system would be used as a backup for the driver, who already should be aware of rail crossings and approaching trains, Bielke said. "It's not that they depend on it, but it's there as a reminder." The device could be especially useful during severe weather, when fog, rain or snow could create visibility problems for drivers. The test units were removed from Glencoe's buses last May after the pilot project was completed, but Bielke said he would be interested in buying the system, even if the price tag is steep. "What is one life worth?" Bielke asks. "I've been here for 25 years, and we've never had an accident involving a train, but it's something that you just don't want to see."
Plates pick up signals
The project is the brainchild of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). Project manager Ben Osemenam said the system makes perfect sense for school buses, but added that it can be used with any vehicle. Osemenam said school buses were chosen for the pilot project because they often get quite noisy. One of the unique features of the system is that it gauges noise levels and sounds the beep accordingly. "So, if somebody is blasting the stereo, the beep will always be loud enough to surpass it," he said. Glencoe's school buses were fitted with antenna-equipped license plates that pick up warning signals transmitted by signalized rail crossings. In turn, these license plates send a signal to the dashboard display. Like Bielke, Osemenam cautioned that the system is merely a supplement to good driving practices. "What we try to promote is that this is not the answer to rail grade crossing accidents," he said. "We very much encourage everyone to fulfill all the normal procedures." Partners in the project include 3M Corp. in St. Paul, Minn., Dynamic Vehicle Safety Systems in Amarillo, Texas, and Western Railroad. Also involved is the Federal Railroad Administration. In addressing the question of whether fleet operators will be able to afford the device, Osemenam said cost figures are not available. "From all indications, the price will be very reasonable," he added.
Next: passive crossings
Osemenam said the second phase of the project will test the system at passive grade crossings, those that have crossbucks but no lighting systems or gates. "We have tested the current technology at passive crossings and that seemed to work well," Osemenam said. "We'll commence a full-blown operational test in the next few months." Earlier this year, two school buses were struck by trains after the drivers apparently failed to employ proper rail-crossing procedures. Both drivers told investigators that they did not hear the approaching trains because radios were turned up too loudly. In a March 10 incident in Buffalo, Mont., two brothers were killed in a collision with a freight train. The train reportedly was traveling below the 49-mph limit and blew its whistle before hitting the 48-passenger bus. The other collision occurred Feb. 28 at a downtown rail crossing in Sinton, Texas. Although the bus was carrying more than a dozen members of a girls track team, no one was seriously injured. The driver, who resigned three days after the crash, told a local newspaper that he didn't open the service door because one of the girls complained that she was cold. In 1995, one of the worst school bus-train collisions in history occurred in Fox River Grove, Ill., when a bus carrying more than 30 students was rammed by a commuter train traveling about 70 mph. Seven students were killed and 24 others injured in the accident.