Railroad accidents increase in Illinois

By Richard Snowden

While the number of nationwide railroad accidents and fatalities has fallen in the past few years, Illinois saw the opposite in 2005.

In Illinois, through the end of August, Federal Railroad Administration data recorded 145 train accidents resulted in 38 deaths, 111 highway-rail incidents resulted in 23 deaths and 14 railroad trespassing deaths.

Current trends

If trends hold, Illinois will see 194 train accidents result in 50 deaths, 148 highway-rail incidents result in 30 deaths and 19 railroad trespassing deaths in 2005.

Compared with 2004 data, the figures represent an increase of 8 percent in train accidents with 43 percent more fatalities, a 33 percent increase in highway-rail incidents with 88 percent more fatalities and a 27 percent

increase in railroad trespassing deaths.

Mark Davis, a spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the railroad tracks in and around the DeKalb area, said highway-rail incidents are a particular problem.

“For years, we’ve been working with communities and local law enforcement in an effort to reduce grade-crossing incidents,” Davis said. “Usually in cases like this, drivers fail to yield the right of way to trains, so we work with the appropriate authorities to address these kinds of incidents.”

Davis explained highway-rail incidents, also called grade-crossing incidents, occur when drivers attempt to beat an oncoming train across the tracks at a railroad crossing.

“When a train strikes a car, it’s much like when your car runs over an aluminum beverage can,” he said. “You can imagine how injurious such a collision would be.”

FRA spokesman Warren Flatau noted highway-rail incidents occur frequently at carefully controlled crossings.

“Despite long- and short-term improvements, there are still nearly 3,000 train-vehicle collisions each year, about half of which occur at crossings where there are control signals,” Flatau said.

Safety efforts

Davis said Operation Lifesaver, a public-safety program that deals with highway-rail incidents, has proven helpful in educating people about the issue.

“[The program] helps educate drivers, including bus drivers and truck drivers as well as regular drivers and student drivers, about the dangers of grade-crossing incidents,” Davis said. “For us, one fatality or injury is too many, so the goal is to reduce, or eliminate if possible, any accidents or incidents, particularly at crossings.”

Flatau said the FRA has a number of safety-promotion programs to address railroad-safety issues.

“We’re engaged in a full range of initiatives intended to promote safety,” he said. “These include track signal and control systems, rolling stock, hazardous materials, and we have an extensive highway-rail incidents initiative.”

Davis said Union Pacific encourages the general public to reduce trespassing incidents as well.

“We offer a toll-free number people can call to report railway trespassers,” he said. The number is 888-877-7267.