Rail FAQs
How long can a train block a railroad crossing?

States lack authority to enforce time limits on how long a railroad company can block a crossing. In 2001, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal laws preempt state anti-blocking statutes. Section 471.007 was removed from the Texas Transportation Code per the Texas attorney general's opinion in June 2005.

Who can impose a law regulating how long a train is allowed to block a railroad crossing?

The only legitimate authority to regulate blocked crossings is the federal government.
Multiple times in the past the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been requested to begin the rulemaking process to determine effective measures to regulate blocked crossings.  Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act of 1994 (FRSA), 49 U.S.C. § 20101 et seq. (2000), is the main source of the railroad industry’s contention that state and local laws are not enforceable.

If a train is blocking a crossing, what should I do?

First, be patient. Railroads and railroaders do not intentionally block crossings; unavoidable circumstances and rules to protect public safety sometimes necessitate that trains block intersections.

Common reasons for a blocked crossing are waiting on the arrival of another train to pass or waiting to enter a rail yard. Occasionally, there are minor mechanical problems with locomotives or cars. By dederal law, railroad employees cannot work more than 12 hours per day, so there are instances when a crew has met those limits ands are waiting for another crew to relieve them.

What information should I collect if a train blocks a crossing for an extended period of time?

First, write down the time, date and how long the crossing was blocked. Note the county, city, street or route that you were traveling on. If possible, write down the numbers on the side of some of the rail cars. Even better, record the number on the lead locomotive, which is usualy in a format similar to "HLCX 1234". Most helpful is the DOT Number posted at the railroad crossing that is blocked.

How do you identify a railroad crossing or locate the Emergency Notification Sign (ENS)?

Each public railroad crossing should have a blue ENS sign that includes the name of the railroad company and a unique DOT identification number posted somewhere in close proximity to the crossing, such as on the railroad sign's post or the post that the railroad lights are on. On a crossing with flashing lights and/or gates, the DOT number will be painted on the side of a small silver building (called a bungalow) near the crossing. The number can also be found on the signal mast, the metal pole the flashing lights are attached to. The DOT number on the mast or the crossbuck pole can be found on a 4-by-9-inch embossed metal tag attached to the mast or the pole that holds the standard “Railroad Crossing” black-and-white-lettered sign in the form of a large X. It is a six-digit number followed by a letter, such as “987456 A”.

What should I do if I think a railroad crossing signal is malfunctioning?

To report malfunctioning signals, call the railroad’s phone number on the side of the small silver building (called a bungalow) nearest the crossing or on the signpost"s placard. Be prepared to give the “DOT number” (see the question above to locate the DOT number). If you are unsuccessful or cannot get in touch with the railroad, contact local law enforcement. If still unsuccessfu,l contact TxDOT for assistance during regular business hours at (512) 416-2376.

Occasionally, railroad crossing warning signals will appear to be malfunctioning, and in extremely rare cases may actually malfunction. It is important to report all suspected malfunctions directly to the railroad so they can be corrected as soon as possible since the railroad is responsible for maintaining the warning system and each railroad has its own procedures for correcting such malfunctions. Active warning devices are designed so that if they do fail, they do so in the safest position — lights flashing and gates down. There are many reasons signals might malfunction, but weather conditions are the most common . 

Can a city require a railroad to operate at a specific speed?

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) governs many of the operational aspects of railroads. Federal regulation preempts any local speed restrictions and most operating practice procedures on trains. (Section 20106 of Title 49, United States Code.)

How fast can trains go on the railroad tracks?

Passenger and freight trains are required to comply with the safety standards established by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Can a city require a railroad not to sound the horns on a locomotive?

Federal law requires the sounding of the locomotive’s horn at least 20 seconds before the train approaches a rail/highway crossing of any public road. Trains or engines must sound the horn as they proceed through the entire crossing.

The Federal Railroad Administration has an administrative rule which allows certain communities to apply for “quiet zones” if the rule’s requirements are met. Once the rule’s requirements are met,  locomotives may not sound their horns when passing through the crossing in most instances. See 49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 222 for those requirements. Cities may also wish to investigate the use of "wayside horns," which are horns mounted at the signal post of a public rail/highway crossing so that the locomotive does not have to blow its horn. Wayside horns are generally believed to be less disruptive than locomotive horns because they are directed at traffic in the street.

More information about quiet zones can be found on the FRA website.

The trains in my neighborhood are constantly blowing their horns. Why do they have to do this when there are automatic signals at the crossing?

Locomotive engineers are required by federal law to blow their horn as the train approaches a public road or street. The horn will be sounded from a point about a quarter of a mile from the crossing till the train enters the crossing. The horn is part of the overall safety system used at all crossings to alert highway users of the approach of the train. Keep in mind that environmental conditions such as fog, wind, snow and rain, as well as a curved track or noisy vehicle traffic near the crossing, can make it more difficult to hear the horn. Noise inside vehicles such as radios or passengers will also affect one’s ability to hear a horn, so these factors should be minimized when approaching a crossing.

How can we get flashing lights and/or gates at a crossing that only has crossbucks?

The Rail Division’s Rail Highway Section administers the Texas Highway/Rail Crossing Safety Program.  Highway/rail crossing safety projects use federal Section 130 funds that are appropriated at $15 million per year. Each public crossing for which lights and/or gates are requested will be evaluated. Its approximate ranking toward other crossings will also be evaluated. Because the need is great and funds are limited, only  crossings with extreme amounts of train and vehicle traffic or other sight distance problems will receive lights/gates.

What is the difference between public and private crossings?

A public crossing is the location where railroad tracks intersect a roadway that is part of the general system of public streets and highways and is under the jurisdiction of and maintained by a public authority and open to the general traveling public.

A private crossing is one that is on a private roadway. It might connect to part of the general system of public streets and highways but is not maintained by a public authority. Usually it is a crossing where the property on at least one side of the railroad tracks is private property. Private crossings are usually intended for the exclusive use of the adjoining property owner and the property owner’s family, employees, residential, farm, recreation/ cultural, industrial or commercial activities.

There are some tracks close to my home that I walk on to get to the store. Is that against the law?

Yes. It is against the law to walk on railroad tracks, and you could be arrested for trespassing. Railroad tracks and right of way are private property with access strictly limited to railroad personnel and persons who have been granted permission from the railroad. Anyone else on the track or grounds of the railroad is trespassing. Even though you might think that you are safe, more than 1,000 people are either killed or injured each year in the United States while trespassing on railroad tracks, yards and other railroad property.

Information about railroad crossing safety and trespass prevention can be found on the Federal Railroad Administration Website.

How do we get a rough rail crossing fixed?

Contact the railroad that is responsible for that crossing. You should be able to tell the name of the railroad by checking the name on the signal bungalow or the ENS blue sign on the crossbuck that includes the name of the railroad company and a unique identification DOT number. Complaints can be sent to TxDOT's Rail Safety Section at (512) 416-2376. Keep in mind that there are approximately 9,000 crossings in Texas and crossing inspections must be scheduled in advance.

The railroad is responsible for performing repairs to the road surface over the railroad crossties. The street or road entity for public crossings, and the private owner for private crossings, are responsible for repairs to the crossties.

How can I access railroad crossing accident information?

The Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety maintains crossing accident and inventory information on the FRA website.

The FRA also maintains a mapping application with details of crossings and rail lines across the country.

Can the public have salvaged railroad ties?

TxDOT does not deal with used railroad ties, and most railroads no longer allow people to pick up ties on their right of way because of safety hazards and the danger involved. Materials are considered property of the railroad company that owns the particular track. Taking them is considered a crime. The railroad police can issue a citation and it is also considered trespassing on railroad right of way to retrieve them. Railroads normally stockpile old ties next to the tracks for removal by a contractor.

TxDOT contacted the three major railroad companies operating in Texas (Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and Kansas City Southern Railway) and they all said that they do not give away materials or sell them. They are used on other projects or incinerated if in poor condition. They usually stack them by the tracks for the railroad gangs to pick up as they work their way through their projects.

Can the public salvage railroad scrap metal?

This material is considered property of the railroad company and many scrap metal companies refuse to buy it without a letter from the railroad company. Only railroads issue salvage letters. Many years ago the Railroad Commission did. However, they stopped doing so before they transferred their rail functions to TxDOT.

The only exception is salvaging road signs or railroad signals that were installed by TxDOT. But only the railroad or its contractor can request an exception. Refer sign and signal calls to TxDOT's Rail Division, Rail Highway Section, at (512) 416-2376.

Texas law forbids scrapping of Railroad metal without permission from the railroad or the State.
See Occupations Code, Title 12, Subtitle B, Chapter 1956:
•    1956.001-10(n) and 1956.001-10(r) defines Railroad material as regulated material
•    1956.031 covers selling of the regulated material

What can I do about overgrown weeds and maintenance?

If vegetation is considered a safety concern affecting a public at-grade crossing, please contact the railroad using the number provided at the crossing. If the railroad is non-responsive, you may report safety concerns to TxDOT’s Rail Hotline at (512) 416-2376.

Is there a Texas law that regulates clearance on a railroad track?

Texas has a railroad clearance requirement in Chapter 191 of the transportation code. Vertical height  above the top of rail must be 22 feet and horizontal clearance must be 8.5 feet from the centerline of the track. If construction is within the clearance envelope, you must submit a clearance deviation application.  

Where can I find schedules for trains in my area?

Freight railroads do not publish operational information due to security and other concerns. The times at which freight trains operate often vary. Passenger train schedules are available from the passenger service provider on their website.

Where can I find information on an abandoned rail line?

Railroad construction, operations and abandonments are regulated by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Tracks that appear to be unused or overgrown are not necessarily abandoned. Rail lines that have been dormant for many years are sometimes reactivated for train operations.

What if I have additional railroad questions, who can I talk with about this?

Contact our office at (512) 416-2376 or contact us via email.  

Why do trains sometimes blow their horns or ring their bells where there are no road crossings?

Train horns and bells are sometimes used for other purposes, such as warning workers or the public near the tracks, or for operations in railroad yards or industrial locations.

My property abuts a railroad track and there are physical issues that are impacting my property. Who should I contact?

Problems such as vegetation control, trash and drainage should first be addressed to the railroad company or commercial/industrial owner of a side track. If the problem is not corrected, contact TxDOT at (512) 416-2376.

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