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The term level crossing (also called a railroad crossing, road through railroad, railway crossing, train crossing or grade crossing) is a crossing on one level ("at-grade intersection") — without recourse to a bridge or tunnel — of a railway line by a road or path. It also applies when a light rail line with separate right-of-way (or a reserved track tramway) crosses a road.
Early level crossings had a flagman in a nearby booth who would, on the approach of a train, wave a red flag or lantern to stop all traffic and clear the tracks. Manual or electrical closable gates that barricaded the roadway were later introduced. The gates were intended to be a complete barrier against intrusion of any road traffic onto the railway. In the early days of the railways much road traffic was horsedrawn or included livestock. It was thus necessary to provide a real barrier. Thus, crossing gates, when closed to road traffic, crossed the entire width of the road. When opened to allow road users to cross the line, the gates were swung across the width of the railway, preventing any pedestrians or animals getting onto the line. The first U.S. patent for such crossing gates was awarded on 27 August 1867, to J. Nason and J. F. Wilson, both of Boston.
With the appearance of motor vehicles, this barrier became less effective and the need for a barrier to livestock diminished dramatically. Many countries therefore substituted the gated crossings with weaker but more highly visible barriers and relied upon road users following the associated warning signals to stop.
In many countries, level crossings on less important roads and railway lines are often "open" or "uncontrolled", sometimes with warning lights or bells to warn of approaching trains. Ungated crossings represent a safety issue; many accidents have occurred due to failure to notice or obey the warning. Railways in the United States are adding reflectors to the side of each train car to help prevent accidents at level crossings. In some countries, such as Ireland, instead of an open crossing there may be manually operated gates, which the motorist must open and close. These too have significant risks, as they are unsafe to use without possessing a knowledge of the train timetable: motorists may be instructed to telephone the railway signaller, but may not always do so.
The director of rail safety at the UK HM Railway Inspectorate commented in 2004 that "the use of level crossings contributes the greatest potential for catastrophic risk on the railways." Eighteen people were killed in the UK on level crossings in 2003-4. Bridges and tunnels are now favoured, but this can be impractical in flat countryside where there is insufficient space to build a roadway embankment or tunnel (because of nearby buildings).
At railway stations, a pedestrian level crossing is sometimes provided to allow passengers to reach other platforms in the absence of an underpass or bridge.
Where third rail systems have level crossings, there is a gap in the third rail over the level crossing, but the power supply is not interrupted since trains have current collectors on multiple cars.
This circular sign is used in the US as an advance warning of the crossing; the crossbuck is at the crossing proper. This is one of the few road signs in the US with a circular shape.
In the United States and in countries following United States practices, a locomotive must have a bright headlight and ditch lights (two lights located below the headlight), a working bell, and a whistle or horn that must be sounded four times (long-long-short-long), similar to the signal for the International Morse Code letter "Q", as the train approaches the crossing.
Some American cities, in the interest of noise abatement, have passed laws prohibiting the sounding of bells and whistles; however, their ability to enforce such rules is debatable. In December 2003, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration published regulations that would create areas where train horns could be silenced, provided that certain safety measures were put in place, such as concrete barriers preventing drivers from circumventing the gates or automatic whistles (also called wayside horns) mounted at the crossing (which reduce noise pollution to nearby neighborhoods). Additional information can be found at the FRA website under "Train horn rule." Implementation of the new "Quiet Zone" Final Rule was delayed repeatedly but was finally implemented in the summer of 2005. Rail "Quiet Zone" crossings still require bells as part of the automatic warning devices (AWDs) in addition to the wayside horns. The wayside horns usually are sets of speakers that are directed at the crossing mounted right up on a pole.