Solutions to rail safety tricky but worth it, experts say

By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff



Lives can be saved by a comprehensive approach to safety at rail crossings in Illinois, but it will take money and tenacity, experts advised during a conference Thursday in Oak Brook.

Participants at the DuPage Railroad Safety Council's "Prevent Tragedy on the Tracks" event, including state and federal officials plus railroad industry representatives, focused on "sealed" railroad corridors.

The concept involves measures such as multiple gates, at-grade crossing closures, enforcement by police and security cameras, raised medians and grade separations that effectively seal off railroads from the public.

While the day involved a lot of statistics and technical discussions, Union Pacific Railroad engineer Ford Dotson underlined the necessity for improvements in an emotional address.

Dotson was the engineer of the Metra train that hit a school bus carrying high school students on the railroad tracks at Fox River Grove in October 1995. Seven teenagers died in the accident.

"It was the worst day of my life," Dotson, describing how fear gripped him as he observed the school bus in the distance.

"I automatically put the brake down," he recounted. "I had no idea what the bus was going to do at this time. I also started the whistle warning signal.

"I was trying to get the bus driver's attention to say, 'I'm here and I can't stop.'"

After the horrific impact, the train halted, one-quarter mile past the crossing. Dotson wanted to rush out and help, he recalled, but his bosses told him he needed to remain with the train. He spent the next few days answering questions and testifying before authorities.

During that time, Dotson felt like "I didn't have no soul. It left my body," he said.

According to the Federal Railway Administration, there were 152 highway-rail grade crossing collisions in Illinois in 2007 with 28 fatalities.

Experts testified that in many cases, the cause of accidents is drivers ignoring warning signals and driving around gates.

Sealed corridor systems in North Carolina, California and one in Illinois south of Joliet to Springfield have reduced accidents and fatalities but are expensive and need community cooperation, officials said.

For example, in North Carolina, state department of transportation officials closed numerous at-grade crossings on nonarterial roads, which proved to be controversial.

"We tried to close as many as we could and I have a lot of scars and blood lost to show it," North Carolina Department of Transportation engineering and safety director Paul Worley said.

Four-quadrant gates, or gates on all four legs of at-grade crossings, are effective in stopping driver circumventions but expensive, explained Illinois Commerce Commission senior rail safety specialist Brian Vercruysse. He cited costs of $263,000 and $280,000 for the safeguards.

Grade separations are among the most exorbitant of railway safety measures. State Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, told the audience that an underpass planned for some years in Downers Grove was now expected to cost more than $50 million.

Safety advocates at the conference said it was important for the region to take a holistic approach and one that's preventive not just reacting to tragedies.

"We don't want to get to crisis intervention," said Lanny Wilson, a physician and DRSC chairman. His daughter, Lauren, was killed at a railroad crossing in 1994.

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