Railroad vegetation: A matter of life or death

According to the National Driver Training Institute, 4,000 vehicle-train collisions kill 500 people each year. While many accidents happen because drivers fail to take appropriate precautions when crossing railroad tracks, railroad companies play a key role in preventing accidents.

One of their responsibilities is to make sure that sight lines at grade crossings are clear. Drivers need to be able to see if a train is approaching, so tall weeds and shrubs that obstruct visibility present a serious safety hazard. In such cases, vegetation management can be a matter of life and death.

Railroads rely on specialized service providers to monitor and maintain clear sightlines, mostly by judiciously applying herbicides. “It would be cost-prohibitive to manage by mowing or weed-whacking,” says Dan Mixson, a railway site expert for DuPont Land Management. “The railroads negotiate contracts with applicators, usually at a set fee per crossing per year.”

One such applicator is RWC Inc., which operates in 35 states from the East Coast to just west of the Mississippi River and serves clients including AMTRAK, CN, and Ohio Central Railroad. “Requirements vary somewhat by state, but the general standard is to clear 500 feet on either side of the crossing, preferably for the full width of the right-of-way,” says company president Joe Hage. “Generally, we inspect each crossing a couple of times a year, and do an application either pre- or early-post-emergence, before growth gets to one or two feet tall. Then we’ll go back and, if we need to, do a follow-up application for weed escapes.”

Herbicide type depends on the region and targeted weeds. When possible, encourage low-growing grasses and ground cover to prevent erosion and choke out taller plants.

A selective herbicide can take out a broad spectrum of weeds without eliminating ground cover. Mixson recommends DuPont:

  • Pastora for applications in the Southeast, where Johnson grass is a problem
  • Streamline in the East to combat herbaceous and woody plants
  • Perspective for battling broadleaf weeds and thistles in the West.

If a site has a variety of tall-growing species, a combination of products sometimes works best. As with any herbicide application, follow the manufacturer’s recommended procedures and precautions.

- Kenneth A. Hooker is a freelance writer in Oak Park, Ill.