Liability for a Car Accident at a Railroad Crossing

Learn who might be legally liable for a train-vehicle accident at a railroad crossing.

A train hits a person or a car somewhere in our country about once every three hours, according to Operation Lifesaver, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of injuries and fatalities around railroad tracks and crossings. Transporting freight by rail remains one of the most efficient and highly-used methods of moving cargo around the country. The U.S. Department of Transportation expects continued growth over the next several years in the use of rail networks for the transport of goods and people.

There are more than 250,000 highway-rail grade crossings throughout the country and over 96% of all train accidents occur at these crossings. According to the Federal Highway Administration, almost a quarter of these crossings are unprotected -- in other words, they do not have flashing lights or swing-arm gates at the crossings to warn motorists of an approaching train.

After an accident as potentially catastrophic as a car-train collision, it is natural to wonder who or what might have been the cause of the accident, and where legal liability lies. We'll examine those possibilities in the sections that follow.

Liability of the Railroad Company Operating the Train

Just like any person or company who drives a vehicle on a public highway, the railroad also has a duty to operate its trains in a safe and prudent manner. These duties apply to a number of categories of railroad operations. A breach of any of those duties may constitute negligence and result in an accident with a vehicle. A railroad’s duties may include:

  • proper training of people operating the train, such as the engineer and conductor
  • ensuring that the train crew is not fatigued, or under the influence of any drugs or alcohol
  • making sure that the train’s crew properly sounds the train’s warning whistle/horn as it approaches each crossing
  • ensuring that the train is operating within the speed limit (all railroad track segments have speed limits, just like roads and highways); and
  • properly maintaining locomotives and rolling stock.

Liability of the Railroad Company that Owns the Track

Trains travel not just on tracks owned by their parent railway company, but often on railway lines owned by other railroad companies. For example, the Norfolk Southern Railway owns tracks that are largely concentrated in the eastern half of the United States. If it wishes to transport goods to the west coast, it must frequently send its trains and freight cars over lines owned by the Burlington Northern Railroad, which owns a large percentage of the tracks in the western part of the country. Because of this, if a vehicle-train collision occurs at a railroad crossing, the company that owns the train may not be the same company responsible for other safety features at the crossing.

A railroad that owns a track line doesn’t own merely the narrow strip of land on which the track sits. The company also owns the right-of-way, i.e., a width of land on either side of the track. With regard to crossings, this ownership imposes a number of duties that can often affect the overall safety of a railroad crossing. These duties include:

  • proper installation and maintenance of lights and gates at appropriate crossings
  • generally ensuring that approaching motorists have clear lines of sights at crossings by removing obstructing vegetation and trees, and
  • proper maintenance of the railroad tracks.

Liability of the Train Designer or Manufacturer

Depending on the circumstances of the vehicle-train collision, the cause of the accident may be related to the design of the locomotive or components on the individual cars. A number of electrical and mechanical systems play integral roles in the level of safety provided around trains, including:

  • warning whistles, bells and horns
  • flashing headlights and warning lights
  • brake systems on locomotives and freight cars
  • coupling mechanisms between freight cars, and
  • communications systems utilized by the train crew.

If any of those systems, or individual components of those systems, was improperly designed or manufactured, the company that designed or manufactured the defective component may be liable for injuries arising out of a crossing accident.

Liability of the Local County or City

In rare circumstances, the condition of the vehicle roadbed through the crossing may play a role in causing a collision with a train. Depending on the location of the crossing, the design, responsibility for construction or maintenance of the vehicle roadbed may fall to the county or local municipality. If the roadbed was improperly constructed or maintained, it is possible that the county or city may be legally liable at least in part for any injuries suffered at a railroad crossing accident.

Liability of the Automobile Driver

Lastly, we cannot ignore that decisions made by the driver of the automobile often play a role in collisions with trains. Drivers may attempt to drive around crossing gates, believing that sufficient time is available to cross the tracks before the train arrives. If you are a passenger in a car that is involved in a collision with a train at a crossing, the driver of your vehicle may also be legally liable for your injuries depending on the facts and circumstances of your particular accident. Learn more about Car Accident Claims by Injured Passengers.

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