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Railroad Crossing: Frequently Asked Questions & Signage Requirements

Q. How do you identify a railroad crossing?

A.

Identification of a railroad crossing can be done by using two major types of railroad crossing signage:

Passive signs - Signs that alert motorists that they are approaching a highway-rail grade crossing.

Advance Warning Signs: A public highway-rail crossing must be identified with a round, yellow advance warning sign. These are specifically for side streets. 

Pavement Markings: The warning is painted on the road surface and generally starts at the advance warning sign and ends with a stop bar near the crossing.

Active signs - These are electronic devices that warn drivers about an upcoming rail crossing. Installation of flashing lights or flashing lights with gates at a crossing along with the railroad crossing signs (Crossbuck/Stop/Yield/Number of Tracks) makes for Active Warning Signs. Individual states make the decision about which crossings require active warnings. The devices can include - 

Flashing red lights – with or without bells to alert the driver of an approaching train.

Flashing red lights and gates: To alert the driver of an approaching train, but have a red/white or a black/white gate connected which comes down to block the track. 

Barricade of flashing lights: This is specifically designed to reach across the entire road and all traffic lanes so all people can be aware on multi-lane roads that a train is approaching the cross-section.

Q. Do all crossings have flashing lights and gates along with the crossbuck railroad sign?

A.

Not necessarily. Crossbuck Railroad Sign may be passive or active. When the sign 

is supplemented with red flashing lights or red flashing lights with a pivoting gate that lowers down, it is called active crossbuck. Whether or not to install the lights and gates along with the crossbuck railroad sign at a grade crossing is determined by the state Department of Transportation.

Usually, the active warning devices are installed where:

  • - Trains run at medium to high speed,
  • - Train traffic is frequent,
  • - Highway traffic is high,
  • - Accident-prone crossings
  • - School zones
  • - Sight distance is restricted for motorists

Q. What is the difference between public and private railroad crossings?

A.

A public railroad crossing is a location where railroad tracks meet a roadway that falls under the general system of public streets and highways maintained by a public authority.

A private railroad crossing is on a private roadway. It might connect to a part of the general system of public streets and highways but is not maintained by a public authority. Generally, there is a private property on at least one side of the railroad tracks. Private crossings are usually intended for the exclusive use of the property owner and the property owner’s family or staff for residential, farm, recreation/cultural, industrial, or commercial purposes.

Q. Is it illegal to walk on railroad tracks?

A.

Yes. Railroad tracks are private property. It is against the law to walk on railroad tracks, and violators can be arrested for trespassing. Apart from the designated grade crossing, no one should walk on tracks except railroad personnel and persons who have been granted permission from the railroad administration to do so. Anyone else on the track or grounds of the railroad is trespassing. Not only is trespassing illegal, but it is also dangerous for the violators' safety and can cause lasting damage to railroad property.

Q. What is the meaning of the ‘LOOK’ sign in the context of railroads? And what is the recommended color for this sign?

A.

The LOOK sign (MUTCD R15-8) reminds road users of the regulatory requirement to look both ways for trains before grade crossing. One should never assume that trains will always come from the same direction. Remember that trains can arrive at any time from any direction. Thus, always look and listen when crossing railroad tracks.

LOOK Sign can be mounted as a supplemental plaque below the Crossbuck sign or on a separate post near the grade crossing on the railroad or Light Rail Tracks right-of-way. As per, Chapter 8 Figure 8B-1 of MUTCD, the sign must have black letters on a white background. Look sign must be a horizontal rectangular sign with a horizontal two-direction arrow above the word "LOOK."

Q. What are the size and mounting requirements for crossbuck signs?

A.

The CrossBuck Sign shall have a design as shown in MUTCD R15-1. The sign shall be composed of two horizontal rectangular white signs placed one on top of the other at a 90-degree angle to form an "x," denoting a crossbuck. The width of each piece must be 9 inches, and the length must be 48 inches. In black letters, the word "RAILROAD" must be printed on the piece running from northwest to southeast, and the word "CROSSING" on the piece running from southwest to northeast. The lettering must be 7 inches high. The center of the X is to be at least 9 feet off the ground.

Q. What are the MUTCD requirements for Railroad Crossing Signs?

A.

The MUTCD requires the use of railroad crossing “crossbuck” signs whenever railroad tracks intersect a public roadway or pathway. Along with crossbuck, there are more than 40 other regulatory signs and plaques for grade crossings. MUTCD specifies that -

  • - Signs should be located on the right-hand side of the highway
  • - Signs should be located to optimize visibility and should not be obscured by parked cars/foliage/roadside splatter/snow.
  • - Signs should be retroreflective. 

Each sign comes with its own set of requirements for design, size, and mounting. Refer to Part 8 of the MUTCD for a detailed specification for each of the signs. 

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