Safeguarding Canada’s Level Crossings

W. A. CRAICK February 1 1915

Safeguarding Canada’s Level Crossings

W. A. CRAICK February 1 1915

Safeguarding Canada’s Level Crossings


CROSSING fatalities, such as are shown are recorded so frequently in the daily press of Canada that the public has become somewhat callous to the distressing effects of their tragic recurrence. The emphasis has passed from the word “accident” to the particle “another.” It is always “another” tragedy or “another” disaster, and the details of the unfortunate occurrence dwindle into comparative insignificance beside the steadily lengthening list of level crossing horrors, the accumulation of years of carelessness and lack of adequate protection.

During the twelve months ending March 31, 1913, the last year for which statistics have been published, 643 people lost their lives on the railroads of Canada in one way or another. Of this large number, thirty-nine or a trifle over six per cent, were run down and killed on level crossings. Omitting the astounding number of deaths among trespassers on railroad property, which accounted for forty per cent, of the total, and the heavy mortality among railroad employees engaged in the dangerous work of shunting cars, there was no class of accident recorded which demanded a heavier toll of human life than that attributed to the existence of level crossings. It exceeded by almost two to one the loss of life among passengers traveling on the trains and it was considerably larger than the number of railway employees killed in head-on collisions.

It must be obvious that men whose lives are spent in operating trains must face a certain amount of danger in any case, for the calling of the railroad man is notably hazardous. High speed, the possibility of defective rails or equipment, the liability of mistakes in orders, a thousand and one chances, all contribute to make the existence of the railway employee precarious. Loss of life among this class of labor is unfortunately inevitable and one naturally expects to find in any table of railroad mortality, a large percentage composed of trainmen who have met their death in the usual course

of their occupation. But the heavy destruction of life among people who are simply driving or walking across the railroad track at some regular highway crossing, is a different thing. There is really no sound reason for it. There should be no justification for its continual recur-

Railway companies are, of course, blamed for this state of affairs. It is contended that it is their duty to safeguard c: ossings and to put them in such a condition as to make it next to impossible for accidents to happen. While this is true to a certain extent, it is by no means the whole story. In the majority of crossing accidents, fatalities have occurred through the carelessness of those who have been killed or injured, not through the negligence of the railway companies. Level crossings exist, and exist in large numbers. Trains are known to cross them at certain intervals. If a pedestrian or a person driving a vehicle neglects to consider “safety first” in passing over them, blame for a mishap, if one happens, should rest on his own head.

This is not to say that the existence of level crossings is to be condoned. The sooner they are obliterated altogether the better and no one realizes this more than the railway officials, who have to pay the piper when accidents occur. However, even carelessness must be safeguarded, and, because fatalties happen so often through this cause, pre-

cautions are in order to place the crossings in such a state of safety that even the most absent-minded individual can walk or drive over the rails without hazarding his life.

A modest, but none the less effective, beginning has been made in Canada to lessen, if not to remove entirely, the dangers incidental to the existence of the level crossing. What has actually been accomplished may not seem much in face of the very great needs of the case but the country may congratulate itself that it is moving in the right direction. As a matter of fact the Dominion has the distinction of having established a somewhat unique scheme for the gradual diminution of the level crossing menace.

Not the least important item of business transacted by the Board of Railway Commissioners, to whom has been entrusted the control of railroad affairs in the country, concerns the protection of highway crossings and a large percentage of the orders issued by it in the course of a year are for the installation of safety appliances or the complete separation of grades. This valuable work has received a considerable impetus within the past five years through the establishment by the Government of what is known officially as the “Railway Grade Crossing Fund,” an appropriation about the application of which the general public seemingly knows very little.

By the terms of the Railway Act governing this expenditure, a fund, aggregating $200,000 per annum, is set aside by law to be applied as the Railway Board deems fit in assisting railway companies and municipalities to safeguard level crossings. It is not a large sum, nor can spectacular things be accomplished with it, but going on the principle that every little bit helps, even $200,000 a year spread over the Dominion is not to be despised. Some persons may wonder why the Government should contribute public funds for such a purpose. The idea is that, while the railway and the municipality are obviously parties to the necessity for protecting a crossing, the people of Canada as a whole have a small interest in the undertaking through the occasional use of the crossing by individuals from all parts of the country.


There are three directions at least from which the Railway Board is working. The first and most effective method is the retroactive. That is to say, a crossing is

brought up for judicial consideration after some accident has taken place at its intersection. The fact that an accident has happened, is usually to be assumed to indicate that the crossing is dangerous and needs attention. It is evidently not the most desirable way to proceed—to wait until some one is killed or injured before taking action — but where there are so many crossings, it is quite impossible to do otherwise, while very often an accident is found to have taken place at a crossing that was previously reckoned to be quite safe.

One of the crossing fatalities referred to at the beginning of this article was made the subject of the customary coroner’s inquest. The jury found that the place was exceedingly dangerous and among other recommendations directed that the coroner should draw the attention of the Board of Railway Commissioners to it. The latter recommendation was a good one but it was really superfluous. Behind the scenes other agencies were at work. The railway company had promptly made its own investigation and as required had fyled particulars of the tragedy with the board. One of the board’s inspectors had immediately proceeded to the scene of the fatality and had carried out an impartial inspection of the ground and looked into all the circumstances surrounding the accident. In other words, the very occurrence of the disaster had automatically set in motion the board’s machinery for handling this particular crossing.

The second way in which the board is endeavoring to minimize the evil, is through co-operation with the railway companies. The latter are invited to submit lists of crossings, which in their opin-

plaint; Some individual who has perhaps narrowly escaped death at a crossing, b ecomes so much worked up over the incident that he forthwith writes a burning letter of complaint to the board ; or some municipality observing the dangerous condition of a crossing within its limits, takes corporate action and its solicitor lodges a formal protest. None of these appeals for relief

ion are dangerous and require protection. These are thereupon examined by the inspectors employed by the commissioners and, if the latter find them to be a menace to public safety, they are set down for attention at the next sitting of the board in the vicinity, when the whole matter of protection is discussed with those interested.

A third method of arriving at the same result is from public corn-

are ever ignored by the Railway Commissioners. An inspector is ordered to examine the crossing and, if in his opinion protection is needed, the question of just what that protection shall be, is set down for consideration at the board’s next sitting in the neighborhood.

That the task of investigation actually amounts to something worth while, is attested by the record of inspections made by the officials of the Board during the last year for which the returns have been compiled. In the twelve months ending March 31, 1913, ninety highway crossings, at which fifty people had met their deaths and sixty-six had been seriously injured, were thoroughly investigated. This makes an average of one every four days, which is a tolerably good showing. Add to this fifty-one inspections of crossings complained of as being dangerous and needing protection, and it is apparent that the inspectors have not been wasting their time.

Incidently, it is interesting to note that of the ninety crossings investigated after accidents had taken place, sixty were situated in what may may be regarded as rural districts, being either in villages or the open country, while the remaining thirty were in towns and cities. Of the fifty-one crossings examined after complaints had been made of their hazardous condition, only five were located in towns and cities. This shows that the preponderating number of dangerous crossings are to be found in the country.

When the Board hears a crossing case, arising in any of the three ways described, witnesses are called and the subject of the dangerous condition of the crossing is discussed by interested parties. If an accident has occurred, evidence regarding the affair is put in and often photo-

graphs are submitted to illustrate more clearly the actual situation. If need be, one or more of the Commissioners go in person to the crossing and examine the ground. Having at length got all the facts before them and having heard the railway’s side of the question, the commissioners deliberate for a while and finally issue their order.


Orders of the Railway Board dealing with crossing protection are of four kinds, corresponding with the four degrees of protection that fnay be provided. First, and most economical of all, are electric bells, of which a total of 161 were ordered during the five years ending March 31 last.

These bells have now become quite familiar to travelers, whose slumbers have sometimes been disturbed at night by their strident clanging as the train stops at or near a crossing. They are automatic, being operated by electricity, and ring as long as a train is within 1,500 feet in either direction of the crossing. Their installation costs from three to four hundred dollars.

Sometimes, however, as for instance where a good deal of shunting is carried on, a bell loses its effectiveness through too constant use and some other form of protection becomes advisable. A watchman stationed at the crossing either permanently or during certain hours, forms the second method of safeguarding a crossing. This method is not often resorted tq and, even when it is, it is usually preliminary to the adoption of the third form of protection, viz., gates.

Orders for sixty-eight gates have been issued by the Board during the past five years. Whereas the bells are customarily installed on country roads, the gates generally go up at crossings in towns and cities. They cost in the neighborhood of three thousand dollars to put in and about $1,200 to maintain each year. It is always found necessary to require their operation day and night, since an unattended gate at certain hours is worse than no gate at all. In the case of a doubletrack road, where there is a chance of trains passing each other on or near a crossing, gates are much preferable to a bell. This was emphasized by an accident that happened a year ago at Clarkson’s Crossing on the Grand Trunk line between Toronto and Hamilton. The crossing, which was notoriously dangerous, was protected at the time by an automatic bell.

The victim of the accident heard the bell ring as he drove up to the crossing and stopped to let a freight train pass.

As the van at the end of the train passed over the crossing, he whipped up his horse to get across, being quite oblivious to the fact that a fast express was thundering along on the other track. The latter train ran him down and killed him instantly. The disaster was directly due to the inadequacy of the protection. Though the bell rang loudly and was heard plainly by the victim, there was absolutely nothing to indicate that there might be two trains within the zone in which the bell operated. An investigation and a hearing followed the accident, with the result that the Railway Board ordered gates to be substituted for the bell. These are now in place under constant attendance and the crossing has been greatly improved in consequence.

The fourth and by far the most drastic


action that the Board can take is to compel a railway company to obliterate the level crossing altogether and, by separating the grades, carry the highway either over or under the railway track. This is a very expensive undertaking and it is not often resorted to. Railways themselves have voluntarily assayed it in the case of large cities where their level crossings were developing by degrees into death traps, but in view of the heavy cost elsewhere the Board does not often enforce the remedy.

Since 1900 the Board has issued orders for grade separation in sixty cases, of which forty-one are subways and nineteen bridges. The important work in Toronto carried on of late by both the Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific Railway Companies is included in these figures. The structures ordered by the Board must conform with certain standard requirements. In the case of an overhead bridge, there must be a headroom of 22 feet 6 inches, which will allow a brakeman standing on top of a freight car to ride under the bridge without striking his head. In the case of a subway a height of 14 feet must be provided, this being ample to admit of a load of hay passing through without being obstructed. Further a grade of not more than five per cent, for the highway must be arranged.


Whenever permanent structures are ordered, whether bells, gates, subways or bridges, the Board draws twenty per cent, of the cost from the Grade Crossing Fund, provided twenty per cent, does not exceed the sum of $5,000. The balance of the cost is usually divided between the railway company and the municipality benefiting from the work. If, in addition, an electric railway, using the highway, is involved, part of the cost is levied on it, since it derives a direct advantage from adequate protection of its intersection with the track of the steam railway. The cost of maintenance is invariably laid on the steam road.

The effectiveness of the regulations covering the disposal of the Grade Crossing Fund is lessened by the two requirements mentioned—the twenty per cent, maximum and the $5,000 limit. Not many subways or bridges could be built for $25,000 and when the cost exceeds this amount the contribution from the Railway Board becomes correspondingly small in proportion. Further, it is provid-

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Safeguarding Canada’s Level Crossing

Continued from Page 11.

ed in the act governing the expenditi of the Fund that assistance cannot extended to more than three separi pieces of protective work in any one mu cipality within a year. As grade sepa tion is frequently carried on under! comprehensive plan or would be, if und taken, it is obvious that through t1 restriction also, the Board’s work is be: handicapped.


When the Railway Act is revised, a: will probably be at the present session Parliament, it is understood that regulations dealing with the disposit of the Grade Crossing Fund will be lc ened up considerably and that the 1 limits of 20 per cent, and $5,000 will enlarged. Hitherto, owing to reas already outlined, the full $200,000 never yet been given to the railway ci panies to do more in the direction grade separation and, instead of be

compelled to keep their money, the Board will find an outlet for all of it.

Of course, apart from the protective measures referred to, there are certain dangerous crossings. Sometimes by Simply cutting down a grove of trees or paring off the side of a bank, a crossing can be rendered reasonably safe and these remedies are frequently recommended by the engineers of the board. Occasionally the diversion of a road is all that is needed, while there are instances on record where the board has simply made the municipality close a road altogether.

J The application of the Railway Grade Crossing Fund is confined to crossings in existence prior to April 1st, 1909. Any railway constructed afterwards has to oear all the cost of protecting its crossings with existing highways, except when some special agreement is entered into whereby che cost is divided among other interested barties. These new railways, of course, jrnve to have all their plans approved by che Railway Board in the first place, nor can they cross any highway without the ¡>oard’s permission. This gives the commissioners a leverage and enables them to !ompel the new roads to provide adequate róssing protection while construction is In progress. It might be thought that this would mean no more level crossings, but t has been found quite impossible, in view 'f all the conditions, to compel railways ¡0 separate grades at every highway injersection. The commissioners have done is much as possible in passing the plans if new lines to ensure the least number of 'angerous crossings.


i In any survey of what is being done in ¡anada to reduce the level crossing evil, He effective work of the Grand Trunk bail way Company in separating grades long its western entrance to the city of ¡oronto should not be overlooked, nor the ialuable work of the Canadian Pacific .ailway Company in obliterating level rossings on its line crossing the northern art of the same city. With the compleon of these undertakings, the construcon of the proposed viaduct along the aterfront and the removal of certain :vel crossings on the east and west sides, oronto will in a few years be rendered iie of the safest cities in America from he standpoint of thorough highway proaction. Even to-day the west-end grade iiparation ranks in magnitude with the ¡ost important works of a similar chartor in any city on this continent.

• As a result of the change in the grade ‘ the Grand Trunk line entering Toronto ■om the direction of Hamilton, trains run bom the wards at Mimico to the Union ¡íation, a distance of over five miles, ithout crossing more than one street on ¡(íe level, in the entire distance. The work ;as begun in 1910 and was completed (ith the building of the overhead bridge u Sunnyside during the past summer, 'together two million dollars was ex¡¡nded on the project which was carried 'it without dislocating the heavy traffic ,>erated over this line. The scheme in'lved the building of five overhead ,’idges and eight subways, the laying of ur tracks, two for passenger service and

two for freight, and the sodding of all the banking in order to prevent earthslides in spring. Approximately 600,000 cubic yards of material were excavated ir the cut from Sunnyside eastward, all oJ which was used in the fill along Humbei Bay. Thus not only were level crossing! eliminated throughout the entire fivi miles, but the railway company reduce« its grades appreciably.

Grade separation along the Canadiai Pacific and Canadian Northern rights-of way across the northern part of the cit; is being rapidly pushed to completion am will be rounded off with the building o the subway at Yonge street. The projec involved the raising of the tracks on aí earthen embankment and the depressio: of the thoroughfares to admit of passin; underneath in a series of subways. Th distance covered is slightly over thre miles, in which space ten subways hav been or are being built, eight of which ar fourteen feet deep and two, twelve fee' The contrast between the level crossing which existed before the work was undei taken and the splendid steel and cerner subways through which both pedestria and vehicular traffic can pass withoi danger or delay, is marked. The engineei ing department of the Canadian Pacif Railway Company is in charge of th grade separation, but on completion of th undertaking, which will also cost up i the millions, the C.P.R., the C.N.R. an the city of Toronto will be called on i share the expenditure.

These are two important examples « what is being done in a big Canadian cit but one might also introduce instand where, on a smaller scale, steps are beir taken to get rid of level street crossinj in other centres of population. Subwa; and bridges are becoming much common than they were only a few years ago aí by degrees one may hope to see a comple wiping-out of all the dangerous railwi crossings in the country. It is a go« work and should be given first consider lion in any further railway development