A new sidewalk mural near Griffith's Broad Street railroad crossings warns passersby to "Look, Listen, Live." It's a lesson railroad and law enforcement officials say still hasn't been fully absorbed by drivers and pedestrians, despite significant declines in crossing accidents in recent decades.

Across the U.S., there were 2,025 "highway-rail incidents" resulting in 266 fatalities in 2016, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. In Indiana, there were 116 incidents at rail crossings, resulting in 36 injuries and 11 deaths. Indiana ranked fourth nationally for collisions, sixth in fatalities.

Those numbers are dramatically lower than when Operation Lifesaver, an organization dedicated to rail crossing safety, was established. It was started in 1972 in Idaho, when rail-crossing incidents nationally topped 12,000.

Indiana's Operation Lifesaver chapter was established 33 years ago.

"In 1984, we had over 6,000 crossing collisions a year; now we're down to 116," said Jessica Feder, the organization's executive director.

A railroad region

The Griffith sidewalk mural was unveiled last week during a Rail Safety Week event near the town's old depot along Broad Street, which crosses seven tracks at the south end of downtown. Tracks crisscrossing the town create north-south and east-west divides.

"That does present a challenge," Police Chief Greg Mance said. But he noted that the two fatalities in his 19 years on the police force are a relatively good record, though still "two too many."

The Region has 700 miles of active railroad tracks, according to a Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission report. Three of the nation's largest freight carriers — CSX, Norfolk Southern and CN — traverse it, as well as four smaller freight carriers. Passenger carriers include the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District's South Shore Line and Amtrak.

The FRA's inventory of at-grade, public rail crossings shows 905 in the Region: 400 in Lake County, 191 in Porter County and 314 in LaPorte County.

The safety issue remains acute in areas, including Northwest Indiana, with high levels of railroad and automobile traffic. Six people lost their lives in 2016 at Lake, Porter and LaPorte county rail crossings, according to FRA statistics. Eight more were injured, in a total of 30 incidents.

Beyond highway-rail incidents, which include train collisions with either vehicles or pedestrians, incidents involving "trespassers," or people walking on tracks at places other than crossings, also are a problem. In the three-county area, two were killed in 2016; across Indiana, there were eight trespasser fatalities, according to the FRA.

Those are sometimes the result of suicide, but accidents do occur, frustrating safety advocates.

"Our big issue is people trying to get from point A to point B using the tracks as a sidewalk," Feder said.

Another frustrating trend is that many vehicle and pedestrian accidents occur at crossings with full warning systems — lights, bells and gates. A full two-thirds of Indiana incidents are at such crossings, Feder said.

"People become kind of immune to the gates and lights," she said.

They attempt to go around, and sometimes feel trapped, but shouldn't, Feder said. "Gates are made to break-away — so go," she said.

Pedestrian accidents often involve someone racing across tracks to beat a train.

The problem, said CN railroad police Special Agent Eric Graf, is that "it's almost impossible to determine the speed of that approaching train."

More work to be done

In recent years, the number of highway-rail incidents has held relatively steady, while train-miles — the number of miles trains travel in a year — also have been consistent. Nationally, there have been roughly two highway-rail incidents per million train-miles each of the last five years.

In Indiana, incidents totaled 119 with 10 fatalities in 2011; five years later, they totaled 116 with 11 fatalities. In the Region, there were 26 accidents and one fatality in 2011; 30 accidents and six fatalities in 2016.

Graf said work to improve railroad crossing safety focuses on "three Es": education, enforcement and engineering. Local police are key to the first two, by visiting schools and community groups to talk about rail safety, and by enforcing traffic laws applying to crossings.

The latter refers to efforts to reduce or redesign grade crossings, or to the addition of safety features.

"Engineering is always a part of our evaluation of areas of concern," Graf said.

Indiana has reduced the number of at-grade crossings to just under 5,800 today, from about 7,000 in 1991. The state also manages a grant program to add safety features, including a current grant helping the South Shore Line add gates to 20 of its crossings.

And the General Assembly, in this year's session, authorized $10 million for a program to make crossings safer. The Indiana Department of Transportation is creating an application system to allocate that money, which it would use as leverage for bond-backed financing.

An INDOT spokesman said the department envisions a program similar to its Community Crossings matching grant program for local road and bridge projects. INDOT asked railroads and other interested parties earlier this year for information about the top one or two crossings they would like to see improved.

It has tentatively scheduled solicitation of grant applications for next summer, with an announcement of winners next fall and financing available in 2019.


Transportation reporter

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.