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SEPTA gets millions from Washington for project to keep cars off the tracks at Regional Rail crossings

Overreliance on GPS navigation, distracted drivers and impatience contribute to car-train collisions.

A SEPTA bus stopped at a grade crossing for an inbound Norristown Line Regional Rail train last week at School House Lane in East Falls. SEPTA has won a $15 million federal grant for new safety measures intended to prevent collisions between trains and motor vehicles at 22 highway and road crossings on five of its Regional Rail lines.
A SEPTA bus stopped at a grade crossing for an inbound Norristown Line Regional Rail train last week at School House Lane in East Falls. SEPTA has won a $15 million federal grant for new safety measures intended to prevent collisions between trains and motor vehicles at 22 highway and road crossings on five of its Regional Rail lines.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

SEPTA has won a $15 million federal grant for new safety measures intended to prevent collisions between trains and motor vehicles at 22 highway and road crossings on five of its Regional Rail lines.

Funded by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, the money comes from a Federal Highway Administration program to help transit authorities address safety issues at grade crossings on the country’s commuter rail networks, U.S. Department of Transportation officials said Tuesday.

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Crashes killed one person and injured five at six of the SEPTA crossings from 2016 through 2021, SEPTA said in its application for the competitively awarded grants.

“Multimodal coordination and investment will improve safety for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians traveling where roads and railways intersect,” acting Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack said in a statement.

Typical grade crossings on Regional Rail have warning lights and two gates — one on each side of the tracks, along with white lines painted on the pavement indicating where motorists are supposed to stop, a standard setup that meets federal and state safety standards.

At 11 of the crossings, SEPTA plans to install four gates, which prevent drivers from going around barriers and trying to cross ahead of trains. The 11 others will get high-visibility yellow pavement markings and reflector posts, as well as a yellow diamond pattern bracketing the tracks. Nine of the crossings will get both.

Such pavement markings have been used elsewhere, notably along the 71-mile Tri-Rail commuter line in South Florida. SEPTA itself has them at 10 other grade crossings on its Regional Rail network. A 2013 federal study of a busy highway crossing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found the markings reduced the incidence of cars stopping on tracks by up to 45% after they were installed.

SEPTA has 86 at-grade road crossings on the entire Regional Rail system. The agency received a separate federal grant in early 2021 for the same kinds of safety improvements at 20 crossings, spokesperson Andrew Busch said.

The crossings now due for improvements are in Philadelphia as well as in Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties. They intersect with the Lansdale/Doylestown, Manayunk/Norristown, Media/Elwyn, Warminster, and West Trenton lines.

Five of the grade crossings are on SEPTA-owned track also sometimes used by the CSX freight railroad and the Lansdale-based Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad, a “short line” that hauls commodities and goods to and from manufacturing plants and warehouses.

“With these funds, SEPTA will be able to make significant rail safety improvements … across our Regional Rail network,” said SEPTA CEO and general manager Leslie S. Richards.

This story has been updated.