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Trains, Cars and Railroad Crossing Signs

September 30, 2019

Drivers need to be informed when they are approaching train tracks with railroad crossing signs so that they are prepared to slow down and stop. The railroad crossing gates will drop if a train is coming, which of course, makes a loud noise (whistle, horn or bell) to alert others. So there are plenty or warnings, yet disaster can still occur if train engineers and motorists are not careful.

Trains vs Cars

Trains have outlasted many other inventions of the industrial age because they’re economical, especially for transporting freight across the country. In the late 19th century, sometimes fairs would feature real locomotives crashing into each other for entertainment. Of course, those were controlled situations. A train crashing into a car is a serious scenario.

Keep in mind, freight trains can be a mile long, so if they’re moving at a speed of 55 mph, it may take as far as a mile to make a complete stop after hitting the brake. Even a much smaller train moving at the same speed needs to allow a certain distance to make a complete stop. The faster the train moves, the more time it will take to stop.

That’s why drivers need railroad crossing signs to alert them to watch out for trains. Even a slower moving light rail train can cause severe damage to a car in a collision.

One of the worst train crashes in recent history was the derailment of an Amtrak train in Washington state in 2017. The train was traveling from Tacoma, Washington to Portland, Oregon, but crashed into Interstate 5 because the engineer failed to slow down at a curve. The tragedy killed three people and injured several others, serving as a warning that trains can collide with cars even if they are nowhere near railroad crossing signs. A final report blamed the incident on “extremely lax safety oversight, unclear responsibility and poor training.”

Evolution of Railroad Crossing Signs

The first railroad crossing gates appeared after the Civil War and were hand-operated by gatekeepers using the crank method. After the turn of the century, the “crossbuck” sign was introduced, in the shape of an “X.” Starting in the 1920s reflectors called “cat’s eyes” were embedded on the signs for greater visibility at night. They were eventually replaced by reflective sheeting. Alternating flashing red lights began appearing on railroad crossing signs as early as 1913.

At one time, the crossing gates were as long as the width of the roadway. By the late 20th century, these gates only covered the lanes of oncoming traffic to create a safety zone on the other half of the road in case a car driver has to avoid a train. In the future, following a congressional mandate, trains will use GPS technology that automatically slows them down in certain scenarios.


Railroad crossing signs are necessary where train tracks intersect with roads. Contact Zumar at our Arizona, California or Washington location to learn more about keeping roads safe with proper signage.

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