Tuesday's deadly Metro-North train accident will likely spur the MTA to explore new ways to protect passengers, motorists and pedestrians at railroad crossings, officials said.
But no amount of innovation or enforcement will ever completely remove the danger posed by the centuries-old system of having trains, cars and people share the same tracks, including at nearly 300 grade crossings on Long Island, experts said.
"We're never going to have a fail-safe way no matter what you do, without eliminating the grade crossing itself," said Mitchell Pally, who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board's LIRR Committee. "No matter what protection you put in, somebody will figure out a way to get around it."
Based on initial findings, investigators say existing safety precautions were working properly when the Harlem line train crashed into the Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle that was on the tracks in the Westchester County community of Valhalla last week. Six people were killed.
Potential strategies to reduce rail crossing accidents, which experts say occur about once every two hours throughout 12,000 crossings in the United States, range from enhanced police or camera enforcement, to technology that can detect a person or vehicle on the tracks far in advance of a collision and notify a train crew, to engineering fixes, such as building roadway bridges over tracks.
While the latter solution may be the most effective, it's also the least likely. The state Department of Transportation and the Long Island Rail Road have eliminated just two LIRR crossings since 1998, both in Mineola.
One of those, at Herricks Road, was the site of what remains the deadliest crossing accident in the region in decades. In 1982, an LIRR train struck a van, whose driver was determined to have been drinking, killing nine teenagers.
Although the LIRR has eyed eliminating other crossings, including in New Hyde Park and Westbury, the projects, which can carry price tags of up to $100 million and require building over private property, have failed to gain much traction.
DOT spokesman Beau Duffy said the state does not "currently have any projects to eliminate at-grade crossings or build structures over crossings."
Islip Town Planning Board member Joseph DeVincent said eliminating especially troublesome crossings should not be off the table, especially as the LIRR moves forward with a plan to build a second track on its Main Line between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma -- potentially causing increased traffic at already-backed up crossings because trains will be coming through more often.
DeVincent said, longer waits at crossings result in more impatient motorists going around downed gates. He's called on the LIRR, state and local governments to, at least, conduct a comprehensive traffic study of the affected crossings.
"My concern about the double tracking of the Ronkonkoma line is that nobody is giving it any consideration at all," said DeVincent, who worked in the office of former Rep. Robert Mrazek during the 1982 crossing tragedy. "I'm not against development. I'm just appalled that nobody's planning for this problem, having lived through the Mineola stuff."
The LIRR has said the Double Track project's impact on crossing waits will be minimal and could be controlled by adjusting traffic light cycles.
Carl Berkowitz, a Moriches rail safety consultant with more than 50 years experience, acknowledged that building bridges over train tracks is usually not cost-effective, but said the LIRR could do more to make crossings safer, including by investing in burgeoning technology.
Berkowitz said that includes a system developed by Fujitsu, of Tokyo, that uses millimeter-wave radio sensors installed at the corners of a crossing to detect obstacles, including cars, vehicles or objects, and trigger train signals that alert a train engineer with enough time to stop.
Fujitsu representatives declined to comment, but the company has said in documents that it has deployed several such sensors in field trials in Japan and "all of them are performing well and securely detecting objects."
Fujitsu has said it aims to make the devices available at a "low cost." Berkowitz said other affordable technological solutions could include cameras at some crossings that could be monitored by a train crew.
"The technology is out there," Berkowitz said.
Pally said he expects that the agency will "readjust or add to" its proposed $32 billion 2015-2019 capital program to "put some money aside to see what else we can do from a technology standpoint."
William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the commuter councils for the LIRR and Metro-North, said that while he expects that the Valhalla tragedy will spark conversations about grade crossing safety at the MTA, even low-tech solutions can be "fairly expensive."
"A lot of enforcement could probably do something about noncompliance. But the cost is pretty high of having someone out there monitoring grade crossings," Henderson said. "Generally, the technology that we have works well, as long as people take the warning light and signals and the gates seriously."
To that end, experts say that among the most effective strategies to reduce railroad crossing accidents is education. The LIRR has said it does its part through regular safety advertising campaigns, including one launched in 2013 that depicted graphic images from a 2012 Brentwood crossing accident that killed two people in a vehicle. The ads' message: "Wait for the gate."
And, through its T.R.A.C.K.S. (Together Railroads and Communities Keeping Safe) outreach program, MTA Police regularly visit schools, libraries and community centers to educate the public on train safety.
Joyce Rose, president of Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping train track accidents, said current and former railroad workers are often the most effective in communicating the dangers at grade crossings.
After the crash on Tuesday, Rose said she hopes more people will be listening.
"As tragic as it is, in some ways it becomes a teachable moment," Rose said. "Every message can become familiar and then lose some of its immediacy. So it's just one of those things that you have to keep plugging away at, and looking for new ways to get the message out."