- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - U.S. transportation officials on Wednesday offered $10 million in grants for states to upgrade highway-rail crossings and tracks in response to a recent surge in flammable fuel shipments.

The announcement from the U.S. Department of Transportation comes as rail crossing collisions have increased over the past several years, following more than three decades of steady declines.

The grants would pay for improvements along rail routes that transport flammable fuels. Shipments of crude oil and ethanol increased dramatically over the past decade before energy prices plummeted.

There were more than 2,200 rail crossing collisions in 2014, killing 269 people and injuring 849. Statistics on how many deaths have involved trains carrying fuels were not available.

The force of a 30-car freight train hitting a car is equivalent to the force of a car crushing an aluminum soda can, according to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit group that advocates for rail safety.

Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg said most rail crossing deaths are preventable and the agency is intent on reversing the upward trend in accidents.

The money announced Wednesday will only go so far: Elevating a single highway over a rail line can cost tens of millions of dollars. Less expensive improvements include flashing signals and automatic gates.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, where most trains carrying crude originate since an oil boom started about seven years ago, said in a statement that the grants will help balance the economic gains of increased oil production with the need for safety.

There are about 212,000 railroad grade crossings across the U.S., according to officials. Almost 40 percent of the fatalities last year occurred in just five states - California, Illinois, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.

Funding for the state grants was included by Congress in its 2015 spending bill. Separately, the Transportation Department has proposed a $250 million annual grant program for communities to upgrade highway-rail crossings and other rail improvements. That proposal has gotten tied up by disagreement in Congress over the six-year highway bill.

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