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Expert Comment: MU Researcher Studies Constant Threat to Railroad Safety

October 6th, 2014

Story Contact: Nathan Hurst, 573-882-6217,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

By Fran Webber

COLUMBIA, Mo. – In the past three and a half years, more than 7,000 trains and highway vehicles have collided resulting in about 1,000 injuries and 250 deaths each year, according to the U. S. Department of Transportation.  Now, Reid Smeda, professor of plant sciences at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR), is studying ways to manage weeds at railroad crossings that obstruct drivers’ vision. The weeds can be difficult to kill because railroads cannot indiscriminately spray herbicides around tracks that are close to yards, areas where crops grow or ditches where the chemicals could pool and seep into the groundwater. Smeda’s research focuses on new weeds encroaching in railroad environments, such as herbicide-resistant weeds that are spread from nearby fields of agronomic crops.

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Weeds at railroad crossings must be kept low not only so drivers can see trains, but also so that conductors on approaching trains can see each other. Also, dry weeds close to the tracks can become fuel for fires when sparks from trains’ steel wheels ignite flammable materials transported in their cars. Additionally, a clear path must be kept around the tracks for workers to safely maintain the tracks and operate track switches.

Railroad crossings are ideal places for weeds to grow, Smeda says. Passing trains drop seeds from all over the country, and fertilizer transported on the trains may fall from the cars as well. Crossings receive maximum sunlight since trees have to be cleared from roads and tracks. However, Smeda says, there are not many herbicides on the market that specifically target railroad weeds because the products are expensive to develop.

“Water hemp, for instance, was not an issue until just a few years ago where seeds from these weeds have now become a problem at intersections,” Smeda said. “Another emerging weed problem is a plant called teasel, which can grow up to eight feet tall. Teasel is considered an invasive species in the United States. It has few natural enemies, can crowd out native plant species and spread rapidly. The teasel population has exploded in the last 30 years, particularly along railroad intersections and highways where mowing equipment helps disperse seeds.”

To fight hard-to-kill weeds, Smeda recommends railroad companies change herbicides every third year to slow the selection of resistant weeds. He suggests using mixes of three or more herbicides to target particularly hardy weeds as well.

Smeda also explores how spraying herbicide at different points in the lifecycle of the weeds can kill them with fewer applications. He runs his tests at two rail yards in Kansas City and northeastern Kansas, and at railroad crossing simulations he created at CAFNR’s Bradford Research and Extension Center. By observing the weeds throughout their lifecycles, Smeda can compare different weed management strategies over time. He is searching for a donor to fund expansion and improvement of these simulations.