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Could Smart City Tech Fix Railroad Crossing Traffic?

The age-old problem of traffic backups at railroad crossings is getting the smart city treatment in Lima, Ohio, a city well known for heavy rail traffic and the lengthy delays that come with it.

Shipping containers on a freight train zooming by at a railroad crossing, motion blur
Lima, a city in central Ohio well known for its high volume of daily train traffic, is turning to smart city technologies to better manage the many interactions between vehicular and rail traffic. 

The three-year project is a smart transportation initiative being led by DriveOhio, InnovateOhio, Spectrum and US Ignite. Lima, which is about 70 miles from both Dayton and Toledo, includes some 40 grade intersections with railroads.

“Things can be tied up here — not just minutes — but long periods of time,” said Mayor David Berger, of the city that sees some 40 trains a day moving through the downtown area. 

“The opportunity to create systems that can monitor, can in fact guide, and ultimately provide real-time information for anyone who is trying to get across town is, I think, a need that is here,” Berger said during a press conference Tuesday to announce a new project which will deploy sensors and other technologies to better track and understand rail movement. 

The technology will involve sensors, video analytics and other devices to monitor train traffic and establish predictive information around, say, how long a train will be at a particular intersection.

“Knowing when a train is going to be crossing, or when it is stopped on a street that you’re going to be driving on, and you can get some real-time advice about the best way around the blockage, that’s something really to be excited about,” said Bob Cupp, speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, participating in Tuesday’s press conference. 

The project will be deployed in the coming months and the city will be in charge of deciding what information will be shared with drivers and exactly how that information will be shared. It will likely follow already existing platforms like Waze or other trip-planning tools. 

“A lot of the technologies that we have been pushing out through DriveOhio, they inform your existing tools. They inform your Waze. They inform your GoogleMaps. They help enhance the tools you already have,” said Lt. Governor Jon Husted, who also serves as the director of InnovateOhio.

Busy rail crossings are certainly not unique to Lima, and are a traffic congestion issue experienced in many U.S. communities. Lima could serve as a proving ground for developing the sort of smart city solutions for these problems, officials say. 

“We want to use technology to improve the way we serve our customers, improve the lives of the people who live in Ohio, and to take the infrastructure and the innovation that can come from technological advancement, and apply that to real-world situations where we improve people’s lives,” said Husted. “This is an example of that.” 


Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.