The most important tips for drivers to follow at rail crossings include obeying signs and signals, always looking both ways, knowing the length of your bus and size of the containment area, and evacuating if the bus stalls or stops on tracks. - Photo courtesy Getty Images/felixmizioznikov 

The most important tips for drivers to follow at rail crossings include obeying signs and signals, always looking both ways, knowing the length of your bus and size of the containment area, and evacuating if the bus stalls or stops on tracks.

Photo courtesy Getty Images/felixmizioznikov 

Many factors can come into play at railroad crossings. School bus drivers must remain vigilant to keep passengers safe and be familiar with proper procedures before moving onto the tracks. School Bus Fleet rounded up statistics, tips, and training resources, to make sure you are equipped with the information that could save lives.

Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI) — a nonprofit that promotes rail safety education to prevent collisions, injuries, and fatalities on and around railroad tracks and highway-rail grade crossings — shared an alarming statistic: Every three hours in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train. And since 480,000 yellow school buses travel our nation’s roads each day according to the National School Transportation Association, it’s imperative we protect passengers and drivers aboard the bus at crossings.

“School bus driver decisions directly impact their communities, and the safe transportation of students is paramount,” Jennifer DeAngelis, director of communications and marketing for OLI, said. “If a route includes railroad crossings, it’s important to know what to do when you see railroad signs and signals.”

A silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the reduction in vehicle traffic last year led to a drop in total crossing incidents, injuries, and deaths in 2020, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). School bus-train collisions are thankfully rare; FRA data shows two in 2017 and four in 2019, with none reported since then. Although, OLI notes that there is not yet enough 2021 data to comment on whether return to school and work this year has affected incidents.

Operation Lifesaver has many materials and trainings available to help school bus transportation directors and bus drivers know proper procedures to keep passengers safe at all railroad crossings. - Graphic courtesy Operation Lifesaver Inc.

Operation Lifesaver has many materials and trainings available to help school bus transportation directors and bus drivers know proper procedures to keep passengers safe at all railroad crossings.

Graphic courtesy Operation Lifesaver Inc.

General Rail Safety Information

DeAngelis shared the following notes and reminders with SBF.

  • The only safe and legal place for anyone to cross railroad tracks is at designated crossings.
  • Always obey warning signs and signals.
  • Always look for a train before proceeding.
  • Always expect a train.
  • Trains may be closer and traveling faster than they appear and can run on any track at any time in either direction. Multiple tracks may mean multiple trains.
  • Ensure you can clearly see down the tracks in both directions before proceeding.
  • Avoid crossing while lights are flashing or gates are down.
  • Never try to beat a train.
  • The average freight train traveling 55 mph can take a mile or more to stop — the length of 18 football fields.

OLI also provides tips on procedures for special situations. If the bus stalls or is stuck on tracks, evacuate immediately. If a train is approaching, run toward the train but away from the tracks at a 45-degree angle to keep students away from the point of impact. Find the Blue and White Emergency Notification System sign and call the number on the sign. No sign? Call 911.

If there is a police officer or railroad flagman at the crossing, obey their directions. If you believe the signals are malfunctioning or there is no flagman present, call your dispatcher, report the situation, and find out how to proceed. Most crossings have a sign with an 800 number posted on or near the crossbuck for reporting problems.

Plan your route for maximum sight allowance at highway-rail grade crossings. Don’t try to cross tracks unless you can see in both directions that no trains are approaching. Even with active railroad signals indicating the tracks are clear, look and listen to confirm it's safe to proceed.

Know the length of your bus and size of the containment area at any intersection. Pay attention to the amount of available room when approaching a crossing with a signal or stop sign on the opposite side. Make sure there’s enough room to completely clear the tracks.

Available Trainings

Operation Lifesaver provides free in-person and virtual training opportunities to help drivers make safe choices around railroad tracks and trains, including specific sessions for school bus drivers. Since 2018, OLI volunteers have made presentations to 19,000 school bus drivers across the U.S. (If you’re interested in your own training, visit OLI’s request a presentation form at oli.org and note interest in school bus driver training.)

The organization also has a multitude of facts and information available online for school bus drivers, including a printable brochure and posters reminding school bus drivers that stopping before driving over railroad tracks might be their most important stop of the day. OLI says they plan to launch an eLearning option in the coming months as well.          

“Highway railroad-grade crossings are a high priority to school bus drivers and we at Region 10, and Operation Lifesaver, take it very seriously,” says Sharon Huecker, a certified instructor for School Bus Driver Safety Training for Region 10 ESC (one of 20 regional service centers established by the Texas State Legislature for delivering professional development) through the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Texas instructor Sharon Huecker conducted a railroad safety training in August at Forney (Texas) Independent School District. The district’s transportation team provided the buses for the class where drivers did mock exercises to practice proper safety procedures. - Photo courtesy Sharon Huecker

Texas instructor Sharon Huecker conducted a railroad safety training in August at Forney (Texas) Independent School District. The district’s transportation team provided the buses for the class where drivers did mock exercises to practice proper safety procedures.

Photo courtesy Sharon Huecker

Huecker reiterates the importance of drivers being alert and knowing the procedures for crossing.

“Drivers should communicate to students the importance of [being] quiet on the bus at all railroad crossings and develop a signal that alerts them well in advance,” she says. “Emergency evacuation training should also be discussed with students and practiced. Transportation directors should incorporate railroad crossing training and emergency evacuation training for bus drivers each year.”

In Texas, all school bus drivers must take an initial 20-hour course and recertify every three years with an eight-hour course, Huecker explains. She says DPS has approved the use of OLI in their required courses in Region 10.

Through Texas’ Region 10 ESC, Huecker held 14 trainings in June and another 14 this past July. Over those two months, 1,062 drivers received certification. A 20-hour course includes four hours of laboratory activities consisting of driving a school bus in a parking lot and demonstrating safety skills. One of those skills is a mock railroad crossing, whereby drivers must use proper procedures when crossing. A mock student pick up/drop off, diminishing lane, off-set backing, and serpentine, complete the required skills during the lab.

“At conclusion, drivers will have knowledge of their role as a school bus driver, licensing and certification, bus maintenance, vehicle inspection, loading and unloading procedures, student management, controlling stress and attitude, avoiding collisions, railroad crossings, and the effects of alcohol and other drugs,” Huecker says.

Rail Safety Week: Sept. 20-26, 2021

Rail Safety Week (RSW) is held in September every year, with a goal to raise awareness of the need for rail safety education. RSW is spearheaded by OLI in collaboration with state programs and rail safety partners across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

“Empowering the public to make safe choices around railroad track and trains is an everyday effort,” DeAngelis says. “We want everyone to ‘think train’ every time they ‘see tracks.’ Know the facts, recognize the signs, make good decisions, and share the rail safety message.”

Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, will be focused on highlighting school bus drivers.

6 Steps to Safely Cross the Tracks

Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit that works to prevent fatalities and injuries at highway-rail crossings, shares this advice for school bus drivers to safely cross at railroad tracks.

  1. Slow down, activate flashers, and stop. Stop no closer than 15 feet and no farther than 50 feet from the crossing.
  2. Eliminate distractions by turning off radios and fans. Ask students to remain quiet as you cross the tracks.
  3. Look and listen for trains by opening right-side door and driver’s window. Look carefully in both directions for approaching trains. If necessary, look around visual obstacles. If your view is obstructed, do not attempt to cross.
  4. Know your bus size. If your vehicle won’t fit, don’t commit! Before crossing, be sure there is space to completely clear the tracks without stopping. Trains overhang tracks.
  5. Once you begin crossing the tracks, do not hesitate. Cross without stopping. If stuck or stalled on the tracks, evacuate immediately. Call the number on the Blue and White Emergency Notification System (ENS) sign and share the crossing ID number with the dispatcher. No sign? Dial 911. You may need to open the emergency exit door at the back of the bus either from the inside or outside the bus. Note: Local and state laws may be more restrictive.
  6. Avoid shifting gears while crossing. Use the highest gear which will let you cross the tracks without shifting.

For more rail crossing safety information and materials, visit oli.org.

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