Rail worker scrambled to save woman's life: Crew was testing warning system, let train pass


Believing they had fixed malfunctioning railroad gates and warning lights, Canadian National Railway workers let an Amtrak train pass through the intersection at full speed as a test, only to watch it barrel into a car on the tracks and kill the driver behind the wheel, according to sources involved in the accident probe.

Investigators interviewed a CN worker who saw the line of vehicles converging on the University Park crossing as the Chicago-bound train approached at 78 miles per hour, then ran toward the SUV driven onto the tracks by Katie Lunn, a Chicago dance instructor.

Desperately hoping to save her, the worker got to within about 30 feet of Lunn's car when it was broadsided by the passenger train Friday night.

"The CN crew came back specifically to test the crossing system with that northbound Amtrak train at about 9:30," said a rail safety investigator who spoke with the CN technician who tried to save Lunn, 26, who lived in Lincoln Park. The accident occurred at 9:35 p.m., according to police reports.

The technician "was traumatized as much as someone can be traumatized that he didn't get there in time, and that (Lunn) was so innocent," said the investigator, who requested anonymity.

The account, confirmed by federal and state sources involved in the investigation, is the fullest yet of what unfolded at the crossing, where crews had been working to fix a glitch in the warning system.

On Tuesday, the Tribune reported that findings from the ongoing investigation indicate that the grade-crossing protection system at Stuenkel Road in the southern suburb was inadvertently turned off by track maintenance crews installing a nearby interlocking, which controls track switches and train movements at crossings and junctions.

With no safety backstops in place, an unintentional trap was set for some unfortunate driver, who happened to be Lunn, investigators found.

Video taken from the Amtrak locomotive, numerous witness accounts and data downloaded from the control cabinet at the crossing all confirmed that the protective gates and warning devices failed to operate, according to officials with the Federal Railroad Administration, which is leading the accident probe.

Earlier in the day, CN supervisors and crew members knew they had problems. After trains passed through the crossing, the gates and warning devices continued to operate, blocking traffic and creating a false impression to motorists that at least one train was still approaching, investigators said.

By late Friday afternoon, CN officials thought they had the problem resolved on the double set of tracks. Three of the four approaches to the crossing -- two southbound and one northbound -- were tested when trains approached at different speeds depending on whether they were carrying freight or passengers. The warning devices and gates activated properly at least 20 seconds before the trains entered the crossing, officials said.

Throughout much of the day, an order was in effect requiring trains to either stop short of the crossing at the instructions of personnel holding flags or reduce speed to 15 mph through the crossing. Apparently confident that the slow order was no longer needed, railroad officials lifted it several hours before the accident, investigators determined.

But officials are still combing through documents and conducting interviews with CN personnel and the manufacturer of the crossing equipment to understand why fail-safe procedures were not put in place as a backstop if the final scheduled test of the crossing's warning apparatus were to fail.

Amtrak train No. 392, the Illini going to Chicago Union Station from Carbondale, was the final test train, officials said. The train, which was briefly delayed in Kankakee, was running just under the 79 mph speed limit through the University Park crossing.

A dance competition where some of Lunn's students performed had just ended at nearby Governors State University, and a steady stream of traffic was heading toward the tracks. Lunn's car was sandwiched between other vehicles that had braked for a stop sign as the Amtrak train crossed the roadway, investigators said.

Two motorists who drove over the tracks moments before the train hit Lunn's SUV told authorities the crossing gates did not go down and the lights failed to flash.

One driver recalled seeing a "puff of dirt" as Lunn's vehicle was hit. The wreckage looked like a "ball of metal," she said.

After destroying Lunn's vehicle, the Amtrak train continued on for 2,200 feet before the engineer could bring it to a stop, according to investigators.

"Where was the fail-safe to prevent this tragedy? That's where the problem lies," an investigator said. "(CN) didn't do it right. There is speculation as to why they did what they did, but an accurate picture will emerge at the end of our investigation."

Even the most diligent defensive drivers, seeing no lowered gates, lights or bells yet still expecting a train to come out of nowhere at virtually every railroad crossing, would have had no chance to escape the Amtrak train, according to authorities re-creating the events leading to the accident that killed Lunn.

But a technology that is in the early stages of being deployed in the U.S. could have led to a different ending.

The technology, placed on board locomotives, is called positive train control. In Friday's crossing-equipment failure, a positive train control system would have notified the Amtrak engineer both that a vehicle was on the tracks and that the crossing system was inoperable. Even if the engineer failed to heed the warning, the positive train control system would have stopped the train.

"Positive train control is probably the most significant safety initiative in the history of railroading and certainly something that would have the ability to prevent a tragedy like this," said Joseph Szabo, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration who was in Chicago on Tuesday attending a congressional field hearing on high-speed rail.

In the situation at University Park, a positive train control system on board the Amtrak train would have detected at least 1 mile out from the crossing whether the protection system at Stuenkel Road was powered up and in service, investigators said. In addition, confirmation would have been given to the train engineer at least 4,000 feet from the crossing that the gates and lights had successfully deployed.

The nation's railroads last week faced a deadline to submit their proposals for implementing positive train control. The railroads have until the end of 2015 to fully install and operate the system.

But there is resistance among some freight railroads to include crossings in the initial rollout of positive train control. The freight carriers see positive train control as providing huge efficiency benefits, but they are concerned about the cost of equipping their fleets with systems that detect blockages on tracks and malfunctioning crossings.

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