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New FRA Railroad Crossing App on the Wrong Track

by Roger Lanctot | Jul 06, 2013

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in the U.S. launched an iOS smartphone app two weeks ago to share information with the public regarding the location of more than 200,000 highway-rail grade crossings.  The safety implications of sharing this information are clear, but the accuracy of the underlying information is already in question in spite of a crowd-sourcing element built into the app.

And a recent disastrous collision of a train and truck outside Baltimore suggests that the FRA app fails to go far enough to mitigate collisions at highway-rail grade crossings.  Clearly knowing where crossings are located is not enough.

The app allows users to retrieve information such as the physical characteristics of railroad crossings in a particular area and the type of traffic control devices used at that crossing. The app also allows users to report information about grade crossings to the FRA to ensure the most accurate and up-to-date information is available. The app is free through Apple’s App Store and can be used on any iPhone or iPad.

While it is a positive gesture for the FRA to offer this kind of outreach, the process seems completely ill-conceived especially in the context of clashing with private commercial products and services. An existing app called Global Mobile Alert already exists to alert drivers when using their phone to the presence of railroad crossings, school zones and intersections, for the purposes of mitigating distracted driving.

Global Mobile Alert uses data from the Here division within Nokia as its source with programming of the application by deCarta. Here has its own procedures for receiving map and POI information corrections. What is unclear is precisely who will receive railroad crossing information corrections at the FRA and how and when they will be processed and distributed to users of the app. Of course Here's information is used as part of fleet navigation solutions as well, meaning FRA's app is setting up a redundant data set.

Amazingly enough, the truck driver whose trash truck was hit by a CSX locomotive outside Baltimore just a few weeks before the FRA app was launched was using his phone via a Bluetooth connection at the time of the crash. The Global Mobile Alert app might have removed this distraction, though the driver claimed he looked up and down the track in spite of being on the phone.

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hailed the new FRA app as a means to improve neighborhood safety and assist consumers in making better travel choices. It seems pretty clear that the likelihood of this new app achieving success will require that any information generated be integrated into existing navigation and traffic information services.

Moreover, it fundamentally makes no sense for the government to be getting into the app development business – especially when the implications for sharing the railroad crossing information extend to the commercial fleet sector. The intersection of fleet and rail transport protocols and priorities highlights the urgency of capturing and distributing up to date crossing information including the timing of the passage of actual trains.

But judging from the first public comment on the app, it is already failing at its limited objective of locating the actual crossings:

“just downloaded this app. 

“Without looking too far, I see a number of errors. Some include missing crossings - including one on Route 138 at the KIN station, which is above grade and has been in place for 70+ years! Other errors include at grade crossings on the NEC in RI. All at grade crossings in RI on the NEC have either been eliminated (the road severed into 2 dead end roads) or have been grade separated. This happened over 10 years ago.”

Prior to the launch of the app, the DOT claims a 34% reduction in incidents at highway-rail crossing with a corresponding reduction of 30% in related fatalities. In 2012, 20% of all reportable rail accidents occurred at highway-rail crossings, according to the agency.

The really strange thing about the app, though, is that it is focused solely on the location and setup of the highway-rail crossings. As the commenter appropriately notes, highway-rail crossings are fixed and are not subject to frequent changes either in location or in their configuration.

The FRA ought to have definitive information regarding the location of these crossings and their condition. It may well be that there is a crowd-sourcing opportunity in reporting burned out lights, or traffic-stopping control arms that are failing to deploy or alarm bells that are failing to sound properly – but it is not clear what elements are reportable, who will validate these reports and who will see to it that updates are pushed to the users of the apps.

This is even more surprising given the critical nature of the information for the fleet industry. The train-truck collision outside Baltimore occurred just four weeks prior to the launch of the FRA app. The collision resulted in a derailment and a violent explosion – though no fatalities.

The driver of the truck claimed he slowed and looked as he approached the tracks but never saw or heard the CSX locomotive bearing down on him, according to an account in the Baltimore Sun. “John Alban Jr. told a Baltimore County police investigator that he was talking via Bluetooth on his cell phone on his way to a recycling facility on May 28, when he made the turn north from his business toward Lake Drive.”

The Baltimore Sun report continues: “He did not hear the train warning horn,’ said the police report dated June 24. ‘As he made the turn [he] looked to the right and did not see anything. As he was crossing the tracks, he heard the train horn and looked up at the same time as the train hit him.’

Clearly, knowledge of the location of the crossing was not an issue, but knowledge of the timing of the passage of trains was less well known and might have made a difference. Similarly, an app that was capable of discouraging use of the phone at such a crossing – such as Global Mobile Alert – might have prevented the collision, derailment and explosion.

If the FRA really wants to make a difference it should find a private partner to create an app – perhaps based on the existing app – tapping into existing databases from organizations such as Here and enabling crowd sourcing or a wider variety of information. But, even more importantly, what is clearly missing is an app capable of sharing critical information regarding the scheduled openings and closings of those crossings for passing trains or construction – in the interest of avoiding collisions and saving lives.

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