Rail safety awareness helps keep everyone safe from injury and incident.

King St. Station. Photo Credit: SDOT Flickr.

Summary

  • Safety is always important, but shorter days call for additional reminders to stay vigilant about personal safety while using all modes of transportation. 
  • Commuter and freight trains are a significant and critical part of our cityscape and regional economy, and will continue to affect other modes of travel. 
  • At SDOT, we’re committed to making it easier and safer for everyone to arrive at their destination by providing the latest rail safety information. 
  • Even with improved safety measures, there are far too many incidents between trains and people walking, biking, and driving in Seattle. 
  • Please keep an eye out for yourselves and for one another by following practical safety guidance whenever traveling near active rail lines.  

Safety messages are always important, but darker days call for even more reminders about how we can stay safe while using all modes of transportation. In this blog, we’ll highlight the importance of following the rules of the rail.   

Freight and commuter trains are a significant and critical part of our cityscape and regional economy. Rail-related impacts are here to stay. 

The Sound Transit Link Light Rail on the tracks at a Link Light Rail stop.
Link Light Rail. Photo Credit: SDOT Flickr. 

Sound Transit continues to offer commuter service on its Sounder regional trains and expand local service on its Link Light rail system. BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad, Class I railroads operating in the City of Seattle, continue to increase their freight rail movements throughout the region. Unfortunately, the City has limited authority over freight rail traffic, train horn noise or blocked crossings as all Class I railroads are under the authority of the Federal Railroad Administration. 

Freight rail is an important part of our regional economy, supporting employment and goods movement while our local and regional commuter rail is a sustainable, environmentally-friendly method of travel. Rail traffic is here to stay and we at SDOT want to help build and maintain a safe and responsible relationship between rail service providers and our residents! 

We’re committed to making it safer for everyone to get to their destination by providing up-to-date information on rail crossing safety and awareness, and completing projects that enhance safety and reduce congestion. 

People standing on the Lander St Bridge holding a green ribbon across the bridge. One person holds large scissors and is preparing to cut the ribbon.
We held a small ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the completion of the Lander St Bridge in September. Photo Credit: Michael Harold. 

One highlight in this dedication to multi-modal user rail safety is the completion of the Lander St Grade Separation project – or Lander St Bridge – a multi-agency collaborative effort to increase rail safety along this busy rail corridor.  

S Lander St is an essential east-west connection between 1st Ave S and 4th Ave S in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood. The new bridge structure crosses four mainline rail tracks that carry over 40 high-speed freight and commuter trains daily. In the twenty years prior to the bridge opening for traffic, the Federal Railroad administration reported over 20 incidents, including three fatalities and four serious injuries at the Lander St at-grade rail crossing alone.  The significant number and frequency of trains kept the rail crossing gate arms down and vehicular traffic idling, which is not environmentally friendly.   

As a result, partners at all levels of government and local advocates identified a need for a bridge over the railroad tracks on S Lander St between 1st Ave S and 4th Ave S. The bridge is a significant improvement in this area in particular. 

Seattle is a leader in the regional economy with many busy at-grade rail crossings that require our full attention when walking, rolling, biking, or driving over them. We’re also taking steps to make many of these crossings safer. 

A train going through a tunnel under Downtown Seattle.
Train through downtown Seattle. Photo Credit: SDOT Flickr.

These busy crossings include S Spokane, S Holgate, S Horton, and S Lucile Sts, and Corson Ave S.  This map provided by the Federal Railroad Administration shows rail crossings nationwide. (Zoom in to Seattle to see all rail crossings in our city.) 

Recently, we installed new advanced warning safety systems at at-grade rail crossings in SODO and Georgetown: S Lucile, S Horton, S Homer, S Holgate, and S Doris Sts, as well as Corson Ave S and S Carstens Pl.  The improvements include updated signs and pavement markings to remind people to remain alert to train movements.  

Our SDOT Operations team is actively communicating with BNSF and UPRR about trespassing, dumping, train noise, rough crossings, missing emergency information signs, damaged fencing, overdue bridge inspections, and any other concerns for our community that require attention.  

In 2021, we’ll work in conjunction with TRAINFO to develop advanced train arrival alerts to people walking, rolling, biking, and driving along the busy BNSF mainline track from SODO through the Waterfront, where grade crossings are frequently blocked by trains. This new technology will allow us to share information with the traveling public through onsite message boards (and potentially other ways like text alerts) about the arrival of trains that will potentially block crossings, allowing travelers the opportunity to make detour decisions around train congestion.  

Even with improvements and safety measures like those noted above, we continue to see incidents between trains and people walking, biking, and driving in Seattle.  

According to the Association of American Railroads, 95% of rail-related deaths involve people moving through grade crossings or otherwise occupying the tracks. These people represent friends, family, and neighbors. Any fatality or serious injury is one too many. Safe behavior coupled with our work to make at-grade rail crossings safer can prevent many of these tragedies. 

Treysea Tate, SDOT Associate Civil Engineer, explains:

“My intern and I spent time last summer inspecting the condition of nearly 300 grade crossing surfaces in Seattle and witnessed numerous ‘near misses’ – where drivers rush to pass an oncoming train that is seconds away from a collision. I’ve also received complaints from constituents informing me of how the trains blocking grade crossings ruin their commute to such a degree that they are tossing their bikes and climbing over train car couplings to get across the grade crossings. This is inherently dangerous. While trains are stopped, slack is developed in the car couplers that will pull and snap together once movement begins – snapping and pulling that can easily cause serious or fatal injury. Train cars and wheels may catch shoes, clothing or hair and drag individuals once they begin moving. Our constituents deserve to know that they’re taking great risk when they race trains or climb over couplers or train cars stopped at crossings.”  

We strive to make moving around and over our City’s at-grade rail crossings safer and more efficient for everyone. As we do so, please keep an eye out for yourselves and for one another. 

Please keep in mind the following safety information – courtesy of the Association of American Railroads and Operation Lifesaver – at all times when near a train track. 

  1. Never try to beat a train. Any approaching train is always closer and moving faster than you think. 
  1. Stay alert around railroad tracks. Refrain from texting, headphones or other distractions that would prevent you from hearing an approaching train; never mix rails and recreation. 
  1. Look and listen for trains as you approach any railroad crossing — obey all signs, warning lights, and gates. Today’s trains are quieter than ever, producing no telltale “clackety-clack.”  
  1. Always expect a train on any track, in any direction. Freight trains don’t travel at fixed times, and schedules for passenger trains often change. Trains can move in either direction at any time. Sometimes its cars are pushed by locomotives instead of being pulled, which is especially true in commuter and light rail passenger service. 
  1. Do not walk on the tracks. Rail property is private property. Walking on the tracks is illegal and dangerous. 
  1. Know that trains always have the right of way. Trains have the right of way 100% of the time over emergency vehicles, police, and people walking, rolling, biking, or driving. 
  1. Stay back. A train can extend three feet or more beyond the steel rail, putting the safety zone for pedestrians well beyond the three foot mark.  
  1. Always assume the track is in use. If there are rails on the railroad ties, always assume the track is in use, even if there are weeds or the track looks unused. 
  1. Cross train tracks ONLY at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings. Obey all warning signs and signals posted there. 
  1. Know the force of a train on a car. The average locomotive weighs about 200 tons, and can weigh up to 6,000 tons. This makes the weight ratio of a car to a train proportional to that of a soda can to a car. The force of a train hitting a car is equivalent to a car hitting a soda can. 
  1. Know how long it takes for a train to stop. Because of their size and weight, it can take a mile or more to stop a train. That’s the length of 18 football fields. 

Learn more and report concerns: