Corrugated Street: The Problem with Railroad Track Level Crossings

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In cities, counties and rural areas where roads have recently received a nice, smooth resurfacing of clean asphalt, one problem for motorists still remains. It’s rough railroad crossings, the jarring experience of passing over the damaging, uneven surfaces immediately surrounding railway lines.

Whether that crossing is at-grade or slightly elevated, it appears to be a cruel joke. The  car or truck might be traveling at a good clip, with no reason to break for the tracks because there are no red flashing signals, lowered gates or trains within sight or earshot. Still, the driver has to break on the approach because his or her vehicle actually risks damage from the road assault. Irregular pavement breaks might cause a three, four or even five-inch step for the wheels to climb. This can flatten tires, wreck the front end of the car and weaken brakes and suspension systems.

It might be a better experience than the random pothole in that you know it’s coming (assuming it’s a railway crossing you are familiar with). But it’s better by only a bit.

The reason for the disconnection between an otherwise smooth road – itself a rarity in a system of road and bridge infrastructure that is in marked decline nationwide – and bumpy track crossings is partially due to bureaucracy. Government entities (cities, townships, counties, states and the federal government) are responsible for road building and maintenance. Private railroad companies manage the railroad lines, including the full right-of-way, the ten or more feet on each side of the tracks.

The main problem is these two separate entities conduct maintenance on different schedules and from different pools of money. The fortunes of railroads and municipalities are not necessarily in sync, so while one might have the budget available to make repairs to its portion of roadway, the other may not.

Aside from bureaucratic factors, the situation is complicated further by the physics of asphalt pavement, summarized as follows:

  • Moisture plus railways equals pavement breakdown. The enemy of all asphalt pavement is moisture. This clearly happens in northern states such as Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and Minnesota, where freeze-thaw cycles add a confounding dimension to the problem. But southern-latitude states that include Florida, Texas, California and even Hawaii have their own problems with potholes and bumpy railway level crossings. This is because fluid moisture – coupled with inadequate crack sealing and other maintenance – still leads to pavement deterioration. Add the physical makeup of a railroad track and the problem gets worse. Moisture and debris accumulate in the cracks between rails, wood timber ties, rubber and steel plates. Metal rails that warm up in a winter sun might add a few freeze-thaw cycles on 30-degree days. And when the railroad bed is raised, the earth underneath the soil can freeze a little earlier than the road leading to it.
  • Multi-ton freight trains shake up the surrounding pavement. Vibration can also be the great destroyer. Railroad tracks are designed to “give,” with just enough flex to accommodate variations in wheel mechanics and freight weight. Meanwhile, motorists prefer for those railcars to pass through at a brisk speed, reducing their wait time. It adds up to vibrations and a subtle shifting of track components, all of which allow more moisture to enter the surrounding pavement.

Some municipalities even the differences by sharing the costs of railway-pavement fixes from their own budget. But absorbing those costs are always a contentious issue at town council meetings, reconciling citizen complaints against budget realities.