In September 2022, a couple rushed to help a young man whose power wheelchair had become stuck at a railway crossing in Holbrook, Massachusetts. A train was approaching as the couple dislodged the man’s wheelchair from the track and led him to safety just in the knick of time. CBS News Boston reported on the incident:
During the pandemic, I came across a similar story out of Lodi, California, in which a police officer risked her life to save an elderly man whose wheelchair was also stuck on the railroad tracks. The officer pulled the man from his wheelchair, but he was partially struck by the oncoming train. The man survived, but his wheelchair was destroyed.
The officer’s body camera recorded the incident and I have shared the video below — note that it is graphic and may be unsettling to some.
Perform a Google search and you’ll find countless stories of wheelchair users struck on the train tracks through no fault of their own. In some cases, help doesn’t arrive in time.
Numerous wheelchair users have died as a result of accessibility barriers that made railroad crossings unsafe. In this article, referencing investigations and research conducted by government agencies in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, I’ll examine some of the conditions that can lead to the immobilization of wheelchairs at level crossings.
Crossing surfaces are bumpy, uneven or impeded by an obstruction
The Rail Safety and Standards Board in the United Kingdom identified that uneven and/or bumpy rail crossing surfaces may “cause wheelchairs to stall (the vertical deflection can cause a battery to cut out)” or “navigate the crossing more slowly, which increases exposure to risk.” Additionally, uneven surfaces may serve as an impediment to the wheelchair’s forward motion, reducing traction and causing the operator to lose control of the mobility device.
The above screen capture of the Holbrook, Massachusetts railway crossing reveals a significantly degraded and uneven crossing surface. The asphalt sidewalk does not appear to be level with the railroad track, a factor that likely contributed to the young man’s wheelchair becoming immobilized there.
Flangeway or surface panel gaps may trap a wheelchair’s caster wheels
The flangeway or flange gap is a gap between a road or sidewalk surface and the train track that bisects it — this gap allows the wheel of a rail vehicle to pass. At the time of construction, flangeway gaps are designed to be minimal, but can still pose obstacles to users of wheeled devices — particularly manual and powered wheelchairs with small caster wheels.
The above screen capture, taken from the Lodi, California police officer’s body camera, shows the man’s wheelchair tires lodged in the flange gap at a railroad crossing. While no additional footage is available to determine how he became oriented in this way, one possibility is that the wheelchair’s right rear caster became lodged first, spinning the chair to the right.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, in a 2018 investigation report, noted that “when a wheelchair passes over an uneven surface, a swivel caster wheel can become suspended temporarily, allowing it to rotate freely.” This temporary loss of contact with the ground can cause a rotated caster wheel to “drop into the flangeway gap, potentially immobilizing the wheelchair” and trapping its user on the railway crossing.
Skewed crossings increase risk of mobility device wheels falling into gaps
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration advise pedestrians to cross railroad tracks “at a 90° angle if crossing with a bike, stroller, or wheelchair, as your wheels can become stuck.”
Despite this advice, many railroad tracks intersect streets and sidewalks at an angle, setting up wheelchair users for a high-risk skewed crossing. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, in a 2016 investigation report, observed that “the ability of a pedestrian to cross at a 90-degree angle depends on the design of the sidewalk crossing and the sidewalk width.” The agency proposed an optimized sidewalk design, shown in the figure reproduced above.
Narrow sidewalks, limited visibility increase risk of wheelchairs falling off the edge of a crossing surface
On the night of July 27, 2016, a Canadian National Railway Company freight train entering the Moncton, New Brunswick downtown area struck a wheelchair, fatally injuring its occupant. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada conducted a complete investigation which identified numerous barriers that contributed to the wheelchair becoming immobilized on the tracks.
Repairs to the railway crossing in question had been conducted not long before the accident, but those repairs had made the crossing less safe.
New asphalt had been poured at the site, but it covered reflective markings meant to identify the sidewalk’s edge. The asphalt “was irregular and did not follow the edge of the sidewalk.” A void in the asphalt short of the rail exposed a gap of considerable size.
Investigators noted in the accident report that “the edge of the sidewalk led directly toward the void in the asphalt.” By tracing the pavement’s edge as one might do in the dark of night, it is assumed that the wheelchair user’s “right caster wheel dropped into the void in the sidewalk,” after which “the wheelchair became stuck in the ballast, immobilizing the pedestrian.”
The illumination of sidewalks is a critical safety feature, but at railroad crossings it is truly a matter of life and death. Had the recently modified crossing been illuminated, the wheelchair user would have been able to identify the void in the sidewalk, potentially saving his life.
Degraded surface panels or gap fillers imperil wheelchair users’ ability to cross safely
Surface panels are used to bridge the interior gap of the track — the space between the rails. When these surfaces degrade, potholes and gaps form that may obstruct the movement of pedestrians. Wheelchair users’ attempts to avoid obstacles may force them to deviate from a straight path and, as the Canadian TSB remarked, “any turn may cause the wheels of their chair to fall into gaps.”
Rubberized gap fillers are increasingly used to fill in the space around the track’s rails — under the weight of the locomotive, the rubber is displaced, allowing the train to pass safely without obstruction. After the train has passed, the gap filler returns to its original form, closing the gap.
Gap fillers are a fantastic solution, but they are primarily used on tracks that serve lower-speed light rail trains and in climates where the risk of ice formation is low. Even where gap fillers have been installed, they must be maintained — cuts and holes in the rubber may develop, revealing gaps that could pose a danger to wheelchair users.
Recommendations for improving the accessibility and safety of railway crossings
Research conducted by Emma Delmonte and Simon Tong identified the following measures that governments and rail operators can take to mitigate the risk of a wheelchair becoming stuck at a railway crossing:
- Delineating sidewalks using road and/or sidewalk markings. However, their visibility degrades over time, especially in colder climates where road salt is used for maintenance in winter.
- Making sure that sidewalks are level and of consistent surface type and quality.
- Using flangeway gap fillers to minimize the likelihood of wheels becoming stuck next to rails
- Making the sidewalk perpendicular at the level crossing so that pedestrians who use wheelchairs will cross at a 90-degree angle
- Implementing a “clear zone” to ensure that obstructions are removed from the approaching sidewalks, and on the approach
- Illuminating unlit level crossings where practicable
The number of reported incidents involving wheelchair users stuck on train tracks makes it clear that railway crossings pose significant dangers to pedestrians. Gaps present on or around the crossing surface increase the risk that a wheelchair could become immobilized on the tracks. Wheelchair users who are unable to evacuate to safety must rely on the assistance of others, but a helping hand is not always available.
While local governments and rail operators must do more to ensure the safety of railroad crossings, disabled people should also adhere to the best practices outlined by the Federal Railroad Administration: cross at a 90-degree angle, maintain your speed, and cross only at designated points.