Stopped freight trains at railway crossings are much like ghosts that only a few see and change the course of their days while others question if they even exist.
Though trains are hardly mythical, when they are out of sight, they can be out of mind for those who don’t come across them.
Count Salt Lake City west-siders among the seers. The specter of waiting for trains to pass has long haunted their commutes.
But those fears soon may fade.
The Salt Lake City Council has steered $150,000 in its fiscal 2024 budget toward a pilot program to install road signs that could alert commuters to how long it will take a freight train to pass.
“The technology could be a game-changer,” council member Alejandro Puy said, “because it will allow drivers, but also pedestrians and people on bikes and other forms of transportation, to know about a crossing and if they need to take an alternative route, or they should just wait there.”
Other North American cities, including Chicago and Jacksonville, Fla., have implemented similar devices to tackle the delay dilemmas.
“I’m hoping,” Puy said, “that we can come up with a better way of helping my neighbors, on the west side especially, be able to be connected with the city.”
How it could work
One provider the city is exploring to contract with is Trainfo, a Canadian data company that helps determine when a rail crossing will be blocked, how long it will take to clear, its traffic impacts and more efficient routes for first responders.
Though Trainfo can work collaboratively with rail companies, CEO and co-founder Garreth Rempel said, it doesn’t need that cooperation to function.
The data gathering starts with train detection sensors that could be installed along a rail line within 100 feet of crossings. The sensors pick up different sounds from the trains and communicate with one another through a cloud service to calculate delay times.
“They’re collecting data about trains,” Rempel said, “train movements, their speed, their location, their direction and sending that data up to our software.”
That information is then processed to predict train movements and traffic impacts and can be integrated into a website, 911 dispatch software or navigation apps like Waze.
Trainfo would install the warning signs at about a mile from a crossing. Users could get notifications when blocking is expected through an app or a Twitter feed.
The city would have a choice of different kinds of signs, Rempel said. They range from simple, static signs with flashing lights that activate when trains are crossing, or transportable electronic boards that would display messages with the crossing warning and estimated travel times.
“To determine whether a crossing is blocked or not, we’ve had a number of third-party tests done and so far those tests have shown 100% detection accuracy,” he said. “And then, in terms of our prediction, it really depends on the rail network, whether there’s a rail yard and sidings but, generally, what we are able to do is predict plus or minus a minute 90% of the time.”
The pilot program may start with two yet-to-be-selected crossings. Puy expects the city to test a north-south and an east-west route.
If it works, Puy hopes that the city is able to expand the program by tapping funds from the Utah Inland Port Authority, which is expected to drive more freight traffic to the area. The city also plans to collaborate with the railroads to facilitate the installation of the sensors.
“I’m hoping,” he said, “that the goodwill of these companies shows when we are trying to implement this program, which will help to positively change the west side.”
Though the signs would represent a significant victory, Puy said, more action is still needed.
The city recently received federal funds to study east-west connections. A first step is to remove the barriers presented by railways. After that study, the hope is to start planning bolder projects like “The Rio Grande Plan,” which foresees burying the track.
Giving commuters more information
In recent years, trains have become longer. They already take several minutes to cross roadways. But emergency stops are frequent, adding even more traffic jams for west-side commuters.
For Poplar Grove resident Lee Smitherman, commuting to his east-side job makes him think about the issue at least twice a day, five days a week. He lives near two crossings and often spends time waiting for trains to pass or navigating busier alternate routes.
From the moment he hears and sees a train, his mind starts an automatic calculation. His phone’s library reflects this, filled as it is with videos of the trains stopped for 10 to 20 minutes.
Smitherman is trying to gather evidence to take to transportation officials, he said, because apart from the inconvenience, such congestion also compromises safety. Neighbors get in car accidents when trying to reroute, and pedestrians and cyclists perilously climb over stopped train car hooks to avoid the wait.
“That’s what made me realize that, hey, this is affecting people’s lives pretty regularly in lots of different ways other than just simply being inconvenienced by not being able to get home as quickly as I would like,” he said, “or being 15 or 20 minutes late to work.”
The signs that may be introduced sound like a good idea, Smitherman said. His main concern, though, is their accuracy.
“I just wonder if there would be times where whatever data they’re getting is based on a best-case scenario,” he said, “and something else comes up.”
Though the signs are not close to the solution overpasses provide for pedestrians at crossings like 1300 South, Smitherman hopes they at least provide some certainty and inform his neighbors’ decisions.
“Anything we can do to help people plan and prepare [is helpful], especially if you could see it before you’re down right next to the track and have to turn around,” he said. “But even if you do have to be close to see, it would still be better than sitting there, not knowing.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.