Railroad Grade Crossing Liability

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Railroad companies who own, operate or lease rail lines for transporting goods and materials are partially responsible for the safety of those who may have to cross the rail lines at some point at a grade crossing. While state and federal governments set the rules for exactly what markings are required and where, it is the railroad companies themselves that must ensure those markings are set up in accordance with those laws. They also must comply with any other municipal laws in the area where the crossing is located. If they are negligent in failing to properly install the required markings, they may be liable for any damage that results from their negligence. 

Railroad Responsibility at Railroad Crossings

Because the state laws on marking requirements vary, and because local governments may also make specific laws regarding the rules for marking railroad crossings, it is important to research what the law is in your area. Knowing the law is the first step in proving whether the railroad violated it.

In the state of Oklahoma, for example, railroad companies are required to mark crossings with crossbucks at the very bare minimum. They may also be required by local governments to mark the area with flashing indicators, audible warning systems, gates or other crossing prevention systems, and/or painted pavement markings or other signs. If the railroad failed to do these things, they may be considered legally negligent. If you could prove that the railroad’s negligence harmed you in some way, then you could collect damages in most cases.

Railroad Safety Requirements

Federal law requires all controlling locomotives be equipped with (and have on) headlights of a specified brightness, a working bell, and a whistle or horn capable of producing a warning sound meeting a minimum loudness standard. In addition, railroad rules (and some state laws) provide that when approaching a grade crossing, a train crew must have the locomotive headlight on its brightest setting and must sound the horn and ring the engine bell continuously beginning one quarter mile (1320 feet) from the crossing and continuing until the train has occupied the crossing. However, recent Federal Regulations have made exceptions to when a horn is necessary at a crossing. New technology is also being implemented to slow trains that exceed proper speeds and distances, or even stop ones that are about to go through a stop signal. If you were injured at a crossing due to inadequate warnings, you should contact an accident attorney immediately to ensure your rights are preserved.

Train Speed at Railroad Crossings

Since the train’s speed can be such a critical factor in a grade crossing accident, it would seem the question of who determines the speeds at which railroads operate their trains over grade crossings would be very important in determining liability when a crossing accident occurs. However, because of the supremacy of federal law (and accompanying regulations), this is generally not the case.

Operating under the authority granted it by Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration has issued regulations that establish different classifications of track with a maximum speed set for each track classification. As long as a railroad maintains its track to meet the criteria for each track classification it is operating on, it need only comply with the required maximum speed. The practical effect of this is that as long as a train involved in a grade crossing accident was being operated at or under the federally established speed for that track when the accident occurred, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a claim that the railroad was negligent for operating at an excessive rate of speed.

Getting Legal Help for Railroad Crossing Issues

If you believe that you have been involved in an accident or situation as a result of a railroads failure to comply with regulations concerning grade crossings, you should contact an attorney to preserve your rights as well as to help you recover any damages.

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