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Utilities Must Deal Effectively with Railroads when Planning to Construct Electric Transmission Lines

Utilities Must Deal Effectively with Railroads when Planning to Construct Electric Transmission Lines

   Subject Matter Expert:
Salvatore Falcone: FalconeSJ@bv.com

Utilities Must Deal Effectively with Railroads when
Planning to Construct Electric Transmission Lines

By Salvatore Falcone, Black & Veatch

When it comes to bureaucracies, railroad companies operate in their own regulatory environment. They make their own rules regarding the issuance of permits for electric transmission line crossings of railroad tracks, immune from any statutory deadlines or political influences to act on these requests. Many a construction project has been delayed waiting on approval from a railroad company. There is usually no choice but for the transmission line to cross railroad tracks; it is only a question of where – and how long and how much effort it will take to obtain the railroad’s approval.

Early Planning

The time to start permitting a transmission line crossing is the day after the project begins. While many forms of infrastructure – highways, roads, pipelines, and other transmission lines to name a few – may need to be spanned in a project, permitting wireline crossings of privately owned railroad tracks usually takes longer than all the rest. Durations of several months are common, with some approvals taking more than a year. Therefore, the permitting portion of construction schedules should allow adequate time for obtaining these permits.

The first order of business is to contact the railroad company and establish a channel of communication with the person who is responsible for processing permit applications. It also pays to anticipate all other related project activities because different staff may need to be involved to handle those applications. For example, if construction requires moving heavy equipment across the tracks, the current road crossing may be inadequate structurally and will need to be improved – which will likely require a separate permit. Tree and brush clearing in the railroad right-of-way may also be required by North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) reliability standards where the proposed transmission line will parallel the tracks and the poles are located close to the railroad right-of-way – yet another approval.

Processing Requests for Crossing Approvals

Application forms may be obtained either online or through direct contact with the responsible railroad company employee. Whether the proposed construction involves a wireline crossing of the tracks, or encroachment by paralleling track right-of-way, railroads will invariably require detailed engineering drawings to be included in these application packages. Information to be provided should include:

• Railroad milepost number
• Latitude and longitude of crossing point or encroachment length
• Angle of crossing
• Transmission line structure numbers
• Pole elevations and pole heights
• Elevation above tracks of the lowest point of the lowest conductor at maximum sag conditions
• Distance of closest poles to track centerline and railroad right-of-way boundaries
• Conductor cable specifications

If an upgraded road crossing is needed to haul heavy equipment across the tracks, the railroad will often specify the engineering design requirements for a permanent crossing improvement. Further, they may require that railroad company staff or subcontractors construct the crossing improvement and bill the utility for the work. Utilities have learned it is critical to obtain a detailed cost estimate before authorizing the railroad to do any construction. At times the railroad’s cost estimate will be so high that it will force the utility to construct an alternate access that does not cross the railroad tracks.

Fees charged by railroads for review and issuance of permits are not as transparent as those for state and local governmental agencies. The amount of the fee charged for railroad company review of crossing or encroachment applications often range in the thousands of dollars, with thousands more for review expediting fees. If a variance from the railroad’s preferred design is sought, the bill is higher still, and it is not at all unusual to incur permit fees greater than $10,000 for a single wireline crossing of railroad tracks. Utility or construction contractors will also be required to provide Worker Compensation and Commercial General Liability Coverage, as well as to purchase Railroad Protective Liability Insurance. Alternatively, applicants may counter with an offer to include the railroad company as an additional insured in its policy, but there is no guarantee this will be accepted.

Binding Crossing Agreements

Railroad company approval of utility construction plans is usually in the form of an agreement that details the rights and obligations of both utility and the railroad. Frequently, the railroad company imposes contract terms and conditions not amenable to the utility or consistent with its legal requirements. If the project schedule allows, these terms can be negotiated; if not, they must be accepted by the utility.

Occasionally, railroads have been known to impose burdensome conditions on the granting of these agreements. One recent example involving a large electric utility was a requirement to provide detailed technical information on every existing crossing or encroachment in the utility’s extensive network in order to get approval for just one new crossing.

Once the agreement with the railroad has been signed, sealed and delivered, there are still notifications to be made before any work can begin. Flaggers will be needed for all the work done over, across or near the railroad tracks. Heavy vehicle crossings may require flaggers posted at least two miles away in both directions so that those crossing the tracks will have time to clear them before a train passes. These notifications may need to be made no less than 5 days and as many as 30 days ahead of the anticipated work. Flaggers must be hired for a minimum of 8 hours even if the need is only for an hour or less, and hourly rates are typically in the $150 to $200 range.


A railroad crossing is not just another permit. Obtaining one takes a significant amount of preparation, time, patience and money. Planning for and scheduling the permitting effort is critical in meeting construction deadlines. Permitting professionals must be diligent, vigilant and persistent in their efforts until the final agreement is signed by both parties.

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