Dangerous Railroad Crossings: Lack of Crossing Gates Must Be Dealt with

Accidents continue to occur in which passengers are hit by trains at railroad crossings that do not have alarms or crossing gates. Railroad companies, local governments and the central government need to work together to reduce the number of these dangerous crossings one by one.

This month, a fourth-grade elementary school girl was struck by a train and killed at a railroad crossing near her home in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture. The crossing did not have an alarm or a crossing gate. The girl is believed to have chased her dog over the crossing.

Such crossings are categorized as “class 4” and are often used by local residents and others who come and go on foot or by bicycle to do farm work or shopping. There are 2,400 such crossings nationwide, mainly in regional areas, and around 10 people are killed in accidents each year.

Many of the accidents are believed to have been caused by people who entered the railroad crossings without noticing an approaching train. Some were reportedly listening to music through earphones or distracted by their smartphones when they got into accidents.

People’s accidental entry into these crossings must be prevented by installing alarms or crossing gates, to warn people of approaching trains through sounds, flashing lights and other means.

Efforts to repair dangerous crossings have not progressed due to the ¥15 million to ¥30 million cost involved per crossing. Many railroad companies are reluctant to take action because of their difficult financial situation.

But if such crossings are removed entirely, residents will be forced to make a detour to another crossing. In many cases, the interests of the railroad company and residents do not coincide, and they cannot reach a consensus.

To break the stalemate, some local governments are stepping up efforts to deal with the situation.

In response to the death of the girl, the Takasaki city government decided to abolish class 4 level crossings in the city and install alarms and crossing gates. The city said it will not ask the railroad companies to bear the cost, but will use the city’s budget and subsidies from the central government.

Local governments should not leave safety measures at railroad crossings entirely to the railroad companies, and they should be actively involved in discussions with residents and other efforts. The central government also needs to provide specific advice to local governments and railroad companies, such as which crossings to prioritize based on the number of accidents and the volume of traffic.

For railroad crossings that are difficult to take quick action on, the installation of a “simple gate,” as promoted by West Japan Railway Co., may be an option.

A simple gate involves a bar that is normally lowered to prevent people from crossing. Once people confirm that it is safe to cross, they can raise the bar themselves and go over the tracks. Such a gate is said to cost only about 10% of installing an alarm or crossing gate.

With the start of a new school term, children who are unfamiliar with commuting to and from school are more likely to be involved in accidents. It is important to provide thorough safety education at school and at home, and to confirm in advance what to keep in mind when going over a railroad crossing.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 24, 2024)