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Unusual Railroad Crossing Accident Shows Need For Working Lights & Gates


Unusual railroad crossing accident shows need for working lights and gatesThis Chicago Sun-Times article describes a somewhat unusual train accident in that it involves a parked train, however, it highlights the dangers that railroad crossings can pose. A freight train was stalled at a railroad crossing when two cars, one crossing from the north and the other from the south, collided with the train. According to eyewitnesses, there were no flashing lights, gates or other warnings of the stalled train. All four passengers had to be extricated from the vehicles and suffered injuries, however the incident could have been much worse if the train had been traveling at normal speed.

One moment [the driver] was driving down a dark stretch of South Halsted [in Chicago]… [t]he next, he says, he was slamming into a "pitch black" freight train stopped dead across the street.

"There was no lights, no barrier, no flares, no nothing."

This accident shows the dangers of unguarded and defective railroad crossings. My previous blog post gives some statistics about railroad crossings and shows that according to Operation Life Saver, Illinois had the most dangerous crossings in 2008. Their statistics didn’t improve much in 2009, when they had the third most railroad crossing incidents in the country (Illinois was third in both number of accidents and number of deaths). Approximately 40% of Illinois’ railroad crossing collisions happened in the six county region of northeastern Illinois (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, Will and Cook County). Last summer, Illinois was one of ten states ordered to improve railroad crossings to reduce accidents.

In the last 10 years, there have been more than 29,000 railroad crossing collisions resulting in more than 10,000 injuries and more than 3,500 deaths. It is important for motorists to be aware of railroad crossing dangers. Everyone should be cautious when approaching a railroad crossing. Because it is difficult for trains to stop, the railroad company and train crew are required to properly warn motorists of an approaching train. Sometimes, a vehicle’s driver can do everything right, but is not given a proper warning.

I’ve chronicled one Missouri town’s crusade to have lights and gates installed at a dangerous railroad crossing. But lights and gates must be in proper working order to provide a safety benefit. Malfunctioning lights and gates may even make railroad crossings less safe, because motorists rely on those devices to warn them when a train is approaching.

In the small Missouri tow, the Union Pacific Railroad had refused to install the warning devices without state or local government money. The small Missouri town simply could not afford the cost.

Railroad collisions have many causes — most of which have everything to do with the railroad and nothing to do with state or local governments.

  • Failure of railroad company to install proper warning devices, such as lights, alarms (crossing bells) or a functioning crossing gate
  • Defective warnings — inoperable lights, bells or gates
  • Improper sight lines that prevent a vehicle’s driver from seeing an oncoming train until it is too late
  • Failure to properly maintain the crossing — such as allowing overgrown trees, vegetation and other foliage to obstruct or hide an oncoming train
  • Improperly parking a train at or near a crossing — this not only hides an oncoming train from view, but gives motorists a false sense of safety in seeing a parked train at the crossing
  • Failure to sound the train’s horn or whistle at or near the crossing
  • Other negligence that may appear on the train’s data recorder or video recorder

Railroad crossing collisions keep happening. Railroad companies need to stop putting profits in front safety. We don’t need a railroad safety bailout when these companies have the resources to make their own tracks safe.

[More information on Train Safety]

(c) Copyright 2011 Brett A. Emison


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  1. Unknown says:
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    Most of the time it is not the railroad that is at fault. Most of the time it is the motorist. All to the glory of rush rush rush. The gates are comming down and your in a hurry so you hurry up and try to sneak under the gates, or the gates are down and you drive in between the gates. I see this everyday in my occupation. When you see a RR Xing sing comming up just slow down and look both ways it will save you alot of pain. Just be patient just remeber the railroad is there to help the economy not to bog it down.

  2. Concerned says:
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    Railroad tracks are safe, its the idiots who don’t stop, look and listen. 100% of grade crossing accidents are avoidable and 100% of grade crossing accidents are the fault of the driver and never the railroad, it is as simple as that. No one forces you to drive in the path of a train.

  3. Brett Emison says:
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    @ Concerned and @Unknown,

    I appreciate your readership, but your anonymous comments suggesting the railroad is never or only rarely at fault for railroad crossing collisions are simply not true.

    Even railroad companies agree that they have duty to properly design, maintain and guard railroad crossings. Railroad crews will agree that they have duty to operate the train at safe speeds, too keep a careful lookout for motorists and other objects on railroad tracks, and to sound warnings when approaching railroad crossings.

    Many train crews are responsible professionals who properly obey the rules. In fact, I am friends with several railroad crew members, including locomotive Engineers. I have no doubt that most take their responsibility for safety very seriously.

    But sometimes railroad companies and train crews don’t do what they are supposed to do. I have seen many, many instances where a crossing was designed poorly so a motorist could not see a train approaching, or the railroad allowed vegetation to grow near the crossing that would hide an approaching train. I’ve seen instances where lights and gates would activate when no train was approaching and failed to activate when the train was at the crossing. I’ve seen locomotive data recorder printouts that proved a train crew did not sound an appropriate warning when approaching a railroad crossings. Sadly, all of these problems occur too frequently.

    When these safety problems happen it is absolutely the fault and responsibility of the railroad company for any injuries that result.

    We’re all bound by rules – even railroads and train crews.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Eric Olesen says:
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    I’m all for giving the drivers the benefit of the doubt here, but the facts are starting to stack up in the railroad’s favor…

    1) The railroad had logged the signals as inoperative, and anonymous sources at the FRA have confirmed that they made aware prior to the accident

    2) Local law enforcement is reported as confirming that flares were in place at the time the train was cleared to cross thru the grade crossing

    3) Under Illinois law, once the train enters, protected crossing or not, it has the right of way, and vehicle traffic is to stop at least 15 feet from the tracks

    4) FRA rules require that when automatic signals are inoperative, and a railroad provided flagman or local law enforcement are not present, “each train must stop and a member of the train crew must dismount the locomotive and flag highway traffic to a stop before the train occupies the crossing.”

    5) GCOR Section 6.32 (http://www.sdrm.org/faqs/rulebook/movement.html#6.32) states that “When a train has been notified that automatic warning devices are not operating properly, the train must not occupy the crossing until vehicular traffic is clear of the crossing.”

    You’ll note that nowhere is it required that a flare be lit, or that a flagman remain present until a train clears the crossing.

    So, I’m not sure what else the railroad was supposed to do under the circumstances. They complied with all of the applicable laws, guidelines and even best practices. They weren’t required to light a fusee and leave it at the crossing, yet they did.

    So let’s focus some attention on the drivers…

    1) The posted speed limit is 35 mph

    2) The driver of one of the cars also stated he was going 35 mph when he hit the brakes.

    3) Normal stopping distance at 40 mph ranges between 120-200 feet, depending on dry or wet pavement

    4) City of Chicago streetlights are usually spaced 80 feet apart, and on both sides of the street

    5) Google Earth imagery of the accident scene clearly shows light poles spaced every 80 feet on both sides of the intersection

    6) The poles immediately north and south of the tracks are 50 and 60 feet from the track centerline

    7) That amount of lighting would not only forward-light, but also back-light the train

    8) That amount of lighting would also be reflected off the FRA mandated yellow safety striping on the railcars

    As I said, I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, but they were unable to see a stopped train from 200 feet away with adequate street lighting.

    The only reasonable explanations for that are that they were distracted from concentrating on the road ahead of them, be it conversation, texting, or talking to their passenger or on the phone.