Making good judgments about whether crossing railroad tracks is safe or legal for school children in an area must be made on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, when thinking about crossing railroad tracks, there are some useful guiding principles. To determe whether crossing railroad tracks in your community is appropriate for elementary school children, it is worth considering the following:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a resource called "Dear Educator", which helps teachers address and teach safety tips to students. At the bottom of the general safety page, you will come across a student pledge. Item 7 of the pledge states: "I promise to always...stop, look, and listen before I cross railroad tracks and never play on or near the tracks." Thus, it appears that NHTSA does not specifically endorse students crossing railroad tracks, but the administration does not outright advise students to avoid or never cross tracks.
According to a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) document entitled Guidance on Traffic Control Devices at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings, non-motorist-crossing safety should be considered at all highway-rail grade crossings, particularly at or near commuter stations and at non-motorist facilities, such as bicycle/walking trails, pedestrian only facilities, and pedestrian malls.
Passive and active devices may be used to supplement highway related active control devices to improve non-motorist safety at highway-rail crossings. Passive devices include fencing, swing gates, pedestrian barriers, pavement markings and textures, refuge areas and fixed message signs. Active devices include flashers, audible active control devices, automated pedestrian gates, pedestrian signals, variable message signs and blank out signs.
These devices should be considered at crossings with high pedestrian traffic volumes, high train speeds or frequency, extremely wide crossings, complex highway-rail grade crossing geometry with complex right-of-way assignment, school zones, inadequate sight distance, and/or multiple tracks. All pedestrian facilities should be designed to minimize pedestrian crossing time and devices should be designed to avoid trapping pedestrians between sets of tracks.
Guidelines for the use of active and passive devices for "Non-motorist Signals and Crossings" are found in section 10D of Part 10 of the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).
In keeping with NHTSA and other federal guidelines, the National Center does not advise students to avoid crossing railroad tracks, but recommends that if such crossing needs arise, that to the greatest extent possible, the following conditions be met: (1) appropriate at-grade crossings are implemented in accordance with relevant federal, state, and local guidelines; (2) appropriate supplemental safety devices (e.g., pedestrian signals, pavement markings) be incorporated into the project; and (3) that children be accompanied by a responsible adult and use extreme precaution when traveling over such areas.