Anyone that spends time in the City of Waukesha, Sussex, Brookfield, Pewaukee or other Waukesha County municipalities is painfully familiar with the congestion and safety issues created where highway and rail traffic meet. Here is what the problem looks like in Brookfield and Sussex.

Mile-long Congestion on Pilgrim Road in Brookfield, WI
Rush-hour Congestion on Hwy 164 in Sussex, WI

Rail congestion is a growing problem across the US. Here, we are specifically looking at the problem in Waukesha County. We performed the analysis following the Department of Transportation studies at the federal and state level summarized on our site here.

Rail safety is essential for everyone – motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, bus and truck drivers. There are more than 4,030 public railroad crossings and 3,300 miles of active train tracks in the state of Wisconsin. Waukesha County has over 100 public crossings.

  • Every three hours a person or vehicle is hit by a train in the United States.  
  • As a motorist, you are 40 times as likely to die in a crash with a train as in other motor vehicle crashes.
  • Every year 1-2 people are killed in Waukesha County when hit by a train.

Rail Congestion: An Exponentially Exploding Problem

Rail congestion is a growing problem across the US. A study in Decatur, Illinois demonstrates that 97% of its citizens are chronically plagued with train-related delays. In 2017, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning found that motorists were delayed over 7,500 hours every weekday, costing residents $58 million annually in lost productivity. A study in San Antonio Texas demonstrated that this is a $1.5B problem, and the traditional bridge-or-tunnel solution would cost an astounding $2.5B. Congestion and emergency response delays at rail crossings have a significant national impact as described in a 2021 Senate report. see https://bit.ly/3InzlY5

A Local Look

Wisconsin has 4000 at-grade (no bridge or tunnel) crossings. States like Illinois, California, Texas and Ohio have 10,000+. Waukesha County is close, familiar and is not unique in the challenges regarding rail crossings. Waukesha County has over 100 crossings, spread among large and small municipalities and a county population of over 400,000. More details here: (https://bit.ly/37vPHQF)

188 Million vehicles travel over rail crossings in Waukesha County every year!

This is 517,333 vehicles per day or 6 vehicles every second. Freight trains can be more than a mile long, and block crossings an average of 12.5% of the time. The result is that freight trains delay 24 million vehicles per year waiting a total of 3 million hours!

$6 Million in Excess Fuel Costs!

24 Million vehicles stalled at crossings burn only 0.083 gallons per minute. At the current $4.00 per gallon, this means that $6 million is spent in fuel in a year waiting at crossings.

13,222 tons of Excess Carbon Launching into the Atmosphere per year!

Vehicles produce 8887 grams of carbon per gallon, translating into 13,222 tons of carbon per year. This costs society $50 per ton of carbon, yielding a total expense of $348 million per year.

$270,000 in Excess Operational Costs for Emergency Responders

Traditionally, emergency crews detour around rail crossings to avoid train delays. This typically means an extra 1-3 miles and 2-5 minutes of delay. The excess operational costs of these detours, at $3.25 per mile, means currently, emergency services are spending nearly $270,000 per year avoiding crossings in Waukesha County. Patients such as  heart attack, stroke, traumatic injuries and crises like house fires risk becoming more tragic as the delay increases.

$35 Million in Citizen Costs and $64 Million in Supply Chain Costs!

The TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH BOARD studies the costs and delays of rail/highway accidents. They assign $16 per hour as the cost of delays to citizens and $108 per hour as the cost to logistics and other highway-based supply chain traffic (2009 cost figures). 30% of road vehicles are used in logistics and supply chain. This means that citizens are losing $35 million a year and logistics companies are losing $64 million in productivity costs per year in Waukesha County.

21 Crossings are 50% of the Problem

Waukesha County consists of populated areas like Brookfield, Waukesha and Pewaukee and also more rural areas like Palmyra. About 50% of the problem comes from only 21 crossings in the most populated and frequently traveled areas of the county.

Rail Safety: Isn’t It About Time We Update A 100-year-old Solution?

Cross bucks were patented in 1867, while Red Signal Lights were first implemented in 1926. Shockingly, these still act as the current standard in identifying rail right-of-way. The only “early warning” is fixed yellow signs placed before the crossing. These signs provide ZERO information about current crossing status and do nothing to avert congestion and blocked emergency crews or notification of obstructions for oncoming trains. More than 50% of the 250,000 rail crossings in the US have automatic warning systems while 34.7% have flashing lights and gates. 60% of collisions occur at crossings with automatic warning systems. 94% of train-vehicle collisions can be attributed to driver behavior or poor judgment. People obtain and interpret information differently than before the advent of mobile apps, and tend to trust the information relayed on their phones, offering a way to help modify dangerous behavior.

Solutions to Rail Congestion

Bridge-or-tunnel and track relocation projects are the most traditionally effective way to address the safety and mobility issues caused by rail crossings. Bridge-or-tunnel solutions are ridiculously expensive, often costing between $5 million and $40 million. Complicated projects can exceed $100 million. Communities often don’t have resources necessary to undertake these construction projects.

Funding Improvements

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) Section 130 Program sets aside approximately $235 million in annual formula funds to states for safety projects at highway-rail crossings. Currently, at least 50 percent of a state’s apportionment must go towards adding protective safety devices at crossings, while the remaining 50 percent can be used for any hazard-elimination purpose. Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD), Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI), and Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) are competitive grant programs that fund infrastructure projects. There are $5B approved and appropriated to improve safety at rail crossings in the Build Better America Bill. Wisconsin has secured $505M in funding for transportation infrastructure improvements including safety at crossings. While these programs make meaningful investments in our nation’s infrastructure, they fund many types of projects and transportation needs and, due to heavy competition, problems often remain unaddressed.

A More Effective Solution

Predictive Mobility solves the problem of highway traffic congestion and blocked emergency vehicles at grade level rail crossings by providing advanced warning and ability to avoid blocked crossings altogether.

How it works: Predictive Mobility places sensors on municipal property outside of railroad right of way. Sensor selection and processing are important to provide the most accurate measure of rail traffic. Some sensor arrangements can also sense highway traffic at the crossing and identify stalled vehicles, cross guard failures and rail property trespassing.  The train parameters are collected from these network sensors and combined in cloud-based software to generate a real-time predictive model of rail and highway traffic along with crossing open/block times and suggested alternate routes.  The information can be provided as web/mobile applications for individual users, cloud API for Computer Aided Dispatch and Transportation Management Software, direct integration into traffic hardware or directly integrated to emerging autonomous vehicle systems. The advantages of Predictive Mobility are:

  • Provides real-time information that can be more believable than existing signage, gates and lights.
  • Provides a future look of blocked crossings and alternate routes so that congestion and safety issues can be completely avoided.
  • Software/Mobile application allows for improved messaging and a more tightly coupled interaction with traffic and actual driver behavior.
  • The cost, time to implement, and resources required to secure funding and manage the project are a fraction of that of bridge-or-tunnel solutions.

Funding the Predictive Mobility approach with the budget of ONE bridge could provide immediate relief for ALL the top problem crossings described in the senate report cited above.

Summary

Rail congestion and delays have a surprisingly large impact on our communities. Traditional Bridge-or-tunnel solutions can be prohibitive. Predictive Mobility offers a modern, timely and cost effective solution to the problem of congestion and safety facing emergency care workers, firefighters, and citizens.

The Assumptions and Calculated Data

The basic assumptions used for the calculations is here:

The cost of operating a fire truck was estimated by using NPTC for a truck and adding 3 additional crew members.

Here is a copy of the complete spreadsheet. Yellow highlights indicate top 21 problem locations.