Crossing controversy

Amtrak says engineer followed rules before fatal crash

HARTFORD - Residents are expressing concerns about a railroad crossing after an Amtrak train struck a pickup truck and killed its 31-year-old driver last week.

Shortly before 7:30 a.m. Thursday, Heather Sheree Balven, of St. Louis, drove into the path of a Chicago-bound Amtrak train going faster than 70 mph at the intersection of Seventh and Olive streets. The impact demolished Balven's Ford truck.

A village employee, Robert Preston with the Hartford Parks Department, witnessed the crash. He said he saw the truck approaching the intersection but did not hear the train sound its horn until it was virtually at the crossing.

The tracks, which are owned by the Kansas City Southern railroad, have an X-shaped "cross-bucks" warning sign, but no gate, lights or bells.

"I was drinking my cup of coffee when I saw a white truck go across the tracks, and I heard an Amtrak (train) coming," Preston said during an interview with The Telegraph last week. "I kept waiting for the horn. Any other time, those horns would give you a headache."

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the train's event recorder, which is similar to an airplane's "black box," shows that the engineer followed protocol in sounding its horn.

"Our train was going just under the speed limit there of 79 miles per hour, and we were sounding our horn, and of course, as it happened, we were braking," Magliari said. "So, everything from the download of the locomotive (event recorder) shows we were doing everything we were supposed to be doing."

Magliari said the engineer sounded the alarm at the marked designation. He said that before every railroad crossing, there are markers that engineers look for to know when to sound the train's horn.

Amtrak trains also have flashing lights on the front of the locomotives that can be seen by motorists, Magliari said.

He said that Amtrak trains travel through Hartford 10 times per day. He said five trains are northbound service from St. Louis to Chicago, and five are southbound from Chicago to St. Louis.

A man working with Balven claimed that visibility along the tracks could be tricky.

"I'll cross it a couple, three times a day, and going from east to west, you can see pretty good," said Stephen Smith, who works for L.G. Barkus and Sons at the job site. "But when you are coming from the west going east, when you cross that little park there, you've almost got to be on one set of tracks before you can see the farther east tracks."

Lt. John Grigg with the Hartford Police Department said the crash is the first one at the intersection that he can remember during his career with the village. Unlike what Smith said, Gregg said visibility for motorists is unobstructed at the site.

The collision remains under investigation.

Balven worked as a geotechnical engineer with Terracon Consultants Inc., which is a subcontracting company doing work for Keystone Pipeline.

Village officials say they've never known of any push to get crossing gates or lights at that crossing.

Illinois Commerce Commission officials, who oversee the state's railroads, said the collision that killed Balven is the first and only accident at that crossing on record.

Elsewhere in the state, the Illinois Department of Transportation reports, there were 129 collisions between trains and vehicles throughout Illinois in 2008, and 130 in 2007. Fifteen people died in vehicle-train collisions in Illinois last year, and 16 people died in 2007.

Meanwhile, 10 pedestrians were killed by trains in Illinois last year, and 12 were killed in 2007.


The Associated Press contributed some information for this article.