According to a wreck report, an SUV driven by Lynette Renee Fowler, 42, was parked in a parking lot near the intersection of Hoke and Blount streets shortly before the crash.
As the Amtrak train approached shortly before 5 p.m., the arms of the crossing gate came down and warning lights flashed, but Fowler tried to cross the tracks and was struck, the report states.
Fowler was ejected from her SUV and pronounced dead at the scene. No one else was in the vehicle, police said.
Erskin Walker, who works in the area, said he saw the wreck.
"We just ran down there to help the lady, and we saw her on the ground," Walker said. "Her body was twisted up."
Police are investigating how and why Fowler's SUV wound up in the train's path.
Walker said he can't understand it.
"Her brakes went out or something. It had to be her brakes go out," he said. "She just went into it, just went right into the train."
The train was pulling in for a Raleigh stop on route from New York City to Charlotte, an Amtrak official said. It was delayed about three hours, but no one on board was injured.