Accidentís lesson: Donít trust railway signals

Death of woman in University Park should remind drivers to check for trains before crossing

Jon Hilkevitch Getting Around

4:42 PM CDT, April 25, 2010

Accident’s lesson: Don’t trust railway signals

A Metra train tracks zooms past the Chase Street crossing.

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"I don't really understand the roadway well where the tragic train accident occurred in University Park, and I can see how someone could be crossing over the tracks when the flashing lights and gates don't work and get hit," Tribune reader Mark B. wrote to me last week.

"But shouldn't there be some warnings in news reports about never allowing yourself to stop on the tracks?

"Certainly I don't know Katie Lunn's specific situation. It could be the traffic was moving, then it all of a sudden stopped. There may have been nothing she could have done differently, but this might be a good time to offer people warnings not to depend on an early warning system. I can understand the reluctance to say anything because it would sound like we're blaming the victim. What are your thoughts?"

Warren Flatau, the longtime spokesman at the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, ends his recorded phone message with this line: "Have a safe day, and please remember: Always expect a train."

It's not just good advice. It's an essential element of defensive driving, and any time a pedestrian is walking across railroad tracks. When approaching a railroad grade crossing, I always slow down and, if necessary, turn on the emergency blinkers and briefly stop to make sure no trains are in sight before proceeding across the tracks.

There's good reason that the drivers of school buses and trucks hauling hazardous materials are required by law to stop, look, listen, then proceed.

I refuse to feel pressured by the occasional impatient jerks who honk their horns over this safety technique ó and neither should any of you. By all means, do not drive onto the crossing unless you see that there is already at least a full car length of space on the other side of the tracks.

I've covered too many vehicle-train wrecks for the Tribune to even consider taking a chance. There are too many things that can go wrong, ranging from human error to gremlins in track circuitry.

I will never shake the memory of sitting in the living room of Ron and Dorothy Curtis in downstate Sciota in 1999 with Tribune photographer Terrence James. I was barely able to keep my own emotions in check as the Curtises grieved and struggled to comprehend the senseless loss of their son Stuart, 17, a talented musician and community volunteer, and his friend Clifford Dannen Latherow, 16, of Carthage, Ill., an athlete who also raised prize-winning Angus cattle.

The two teenagers almost made it home to the Macomb area after visiting their siblings at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, when their car was struck by a 79-mph Amtrak train coming around a curve at a crossing near McLean, Ill., where the barrier gates, flashing lights and bells failed to activate.

I heard from Dannen's uncle this past week after the University Park accident on April 16 that killed Lunn, 26, a dance instructor who was returning home to Chicago after cheering on students at a competition. Federal and state investigators have pegged the cause to Canadian National Railway Co. track technicians unintentionally deactivating the crossing protection system during maintenance work.

After the Tribune reported the flagrant mistakes last week, Canadian National officials publicly agreed with the official finding that the gates, bells and lights were inactive. But they still have yet to explain why they didn't conduct conclusive testing of the protection mechanism before lifting safety measures that would have protected drivers.

Stuart and Dannen, like Katie, never saw the end coming, at least not in time to save themselves from the negligence of others.

"The stories regarding the tragic death of Katie Lunn are painful reminders of the deaths of my nephew and his friend that you covered in 1999," said Jerry Latherow, of Chicago. "As you recall, a railroad worker failed to reactivate the crossing warning system when he finished working on it."

Officials at Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks, initially tried to portray the accident as a case of reckless teenagers attempting to beat the Amtrak train.

"Although the Union Pacific Railroad denied for days that there was anything wrong with the system, they were forced to face the truth as witnesses who narrowly escaped death came forward and the Illinois Department of Transportation found that there was actually a video of the entire event," Latherow said.

The Tribune reported that six video cameras had been installed at the crossing as part of the state's efforts to monitor crossings for the implementation of high-speed rail. The videos unequivocally showed that the crossing protection system at McLean was shut off. The system included "arrester nets" designed to snare vehicles that stray onto the tracks while a train is coming, but the nets were deactivated, too, by a Union Pacific employee.

The railroad ultimately accepted liability in the accident. But the deadly spree continues across the U.S.

"Some people might say that such human error on occasion is to be expected," Latherow said. "But how can the various railway authorities allow such deadly situations to occur without having in place a fail-safe system that requires adequate testing before their workers leave us all at risk?"

That question is as salient today as it was in 1999. And it's one that the signal department at Canadian National has not even come close to addressing.

 

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