Safeguarding school buses: Rail crossings critical

Modern school buses are some of the safest vehicles on the road, but even these sturdy conveyances can be at risk in a collision with a train. Coordination between two N.C. state agencies helps give more information to school bus drivers across the state to help prevent this kind of accident.  

Nearly 13,000 public school buses operate  in N.C. counties that have railroad tracks, and more than 50 percent of these buses cross a railroad track at least once a day. For buses that cross railroads, the average number of crossings is nearly six a day. In dense urban districts with lots of tracks, the average number of daily crossings for buses can exceed a dozen. Adding all those crossings statewide totals nearly 45,000 times each school day, and those buses carry more than 600,000 students, with an average of 14 students on each bus at the time of crossing.

According to Derek Graham, section chief for Transportation Services at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, “The Fox River Grove, Ill., accident in 1995 was a frightening example of what can happen in a bus-train collision.”  That accident resulted in seven fatalities and 21 injuries. One critical issue that emerged from that accident was the added danger from a substitute driver unfamiliar with the route.  Graham says, “North Carolina has implemented a series of steps to share critical safety information with bus drivers to help prevent that kind of event from ever happening in this state.”

Because state law requires school buses to come to a complete stop at a railroad crossing, rail crossings play an important role in the computerized school bus routing that is supported by the TIMS project office at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. TIMS – the Transportation Information and Management System – is used statewide and is managed for western N.C. districts from UNC Charlotte.  The institute’s TIMS office provides services to 55 of the state's 115 school systems and helps them draw up school bus routes that are cost- and time-efficient. 

The TIMS information includes the digitized street network, student locations and daily bus paths, as well as the location of each railroad track and crossing in each county. TIMS data managers in the counties as well as support staff from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and N.C. State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education (which manages eastern N.C. TIMS support) have gone to great lengths to document nearly 4,000 N.C. railroad crossings.

For the last five years, TIMS has shared information annually with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Rail Division. By documenting the location of each crossing within TIMS, new and substitute bus drivers can be provided not only with a set of driving directions for their bus route, but also notifications of potential driving hazards and be informed of any railroad crossing along their routes. The system allows for special instructions to be included for drivers unfamiliar with an area and the crossing procedures that may be required for the bus route.

In addition to the tallies and counts for all crossings, TIMS allows an examination of information for specific railroad crossings. TIMS can indicate how many times a day a school bus goes over a specific rail crossing and how many students are on board at the time of each crossing. According to Ken Turrentine, crossing inventory project engineer for NCDOT’s Rail Division, “We use the TIMS railroad crossing data in addition to our own traffic counts to help identify high-use crossings throughout the state. The data are used to prioritize and justify railroad crossing improvements and upgrades. We are pleased to partner with TIMS as we work together to make the roads and railroad crossings safer for travelers.”

Monitoring the nearly 4,000 at-grade, railroad-public highway crossings in the state has been made easier through the data sharing collaboration between NCDOT and TIMS.

Kevin Hart