Lombard, Villa Park use grant to enforce railroad safety

Lombard, IL

Signs with messages that help is available and a hot line to call are going up near some railroad tracks as a new effort to reach out to people intending to commit suicide by standing in front of a train.

The signs are just one part of a new safety program being taken on by Lombard and Villa Park police departments.

Funded by the Public Education Enforcement Research Study grant, Lombard and Villa Park officials will focus on new ways to enhance railroad safety by increasing public awareness, improving pedestrian behavior, reducing trespassers along the railroad rights of way and keeping drivers compliant with traffic laws.

While Lombard officer Joe Menolascino does not believe train accidents are a major issue in the village, every incident in the village is taken seriously.

“Even one person hit by the train is too many,” said Menolascino, who is the Operation Lifesaver officer for the safety program.

The Operation Lifesaver program is a nationwide rail safety program geared toward raising awareness on safety measures for pedestrians, drivers, and police officials.

“Operation Lifesaver was started by Union Pacific in Idaho in 1972,” Davis said. “If we see an uptick in incidents in a community, we begin working with local authorities to begin enforcing driving and pedestrian rules.”

According to Davis, the program was started in Illinois in 1976.

“The program has come a long way (since the 1970s) and helped in the reduction of both pedestrian and driver incidents,” Davis said.

Menolascino said there have been few actual train versus vehicle or train versus pedestrian accidents, but many other incidents have been ruled suicides by the DuPage County Coroner’s Office.

According to Lombard Deputy Police Chief Dane Cuny, death investigations are all put into the same category, so they are not easily tracked by the cause of death found by the coroner.

“Most of our recent incidents we’ve been having are suicides,” Menolascino said.

One of the biggest worries for the police is the general misconception of “beating the train.”

“It takes 18 football fields for a freight train traveling 55 miles an hour to come to a complete stop,” he said.

Menolascino and other officers have witnessed many people running across the pedestrian platform to beat the train before it arrives at the station. Now, because of heightened enforcement by the police, violators will think twice.

“It’s a $250 fine for violating the gates and bells. This includes vehicles that try to go around and pedestrians,” Menolascino said. “A court appearance is required, and after all the fees are applied, it comes out to nearly $415.”

The bells are important to note for pedestrian platform crossings as many people simply cross the tracks once their train has passed despite the bells still going off.

“Most of the time, they’re unaware that another train is coming in the opposite direction,” he said.

Lombard police have been enforcing the law and writing fines for those walking and driving around the gates and during the bells.

"We’ve been sending the message out there by just issuing these violations and establishing a presence to the public that these are offenses are to be taken seriously,” Menolascino said.

Through the grant program, Lombard now will see more signs at rail crossings and stations informing people of the law. Additionally, officers are trying to speak with children and parents about the consequences of playing on the tracks.

“The older generation is used to growing up with playing on the tracks as a fun activity,” Menolascino said. “The tracks are private property, and the railroads have more traffic nowadays than they did so many years ago.”

Lombard also will be replacing of one of the village’s more dangerous rail crossings at St. Charles Road and Grace Street with a new pedestrian tunnel. The Great Western Trail Bridge project tentatively is set for completion in 2013.

Villa Park police officer Bill Lyons, the Operation Lifesaver officer for the department, works with Menolascino and other Operation Lifesaver officers monthly to come up with new ways to educate the public.

“Our main crossing where we saw the most train-vehicular accidents was at North Avenue and Addison Road,” Lyons said. “The intersection has since been redone, and we’ve yet to see an incident since.”

Other rail crossings in Villa Park also have been redone such as the tracks along Villa Avenue, which now have center medians preventing vehicles from driving around the gates.

Villa Park also is focusing on increasing police presence.

“Our focus is high visibility of enforcement,” Lyons said. “When we stop a car, there’s more than one audience.”

Villa Park also has seen many suicides on the tracks. And while it is a very difficult issue to resolve, the village will try something new to prevent them from happening.

“We just designed these suicide awareness signs after doing some research,” Lyons said. “We’re going to put those in the areas where it seems a lot of them are happening.”

The signs will read “There is help. Call us,” and have the National Suicide Prevention Hot Line number for them to call.

“We may not be able to stop it, but we want to reach out until that last minute,” Lyons said. “If we can reach out and give one last chance for people, that gives us time to stop the train and prevent it from happening.”

Lyons said department members have been on the phone with suicide victims up until that last minute and also have pulled people off the tracks.

“Is it going to save everybody? No,” Lyons said. “But it could give one more chance, and that’s what we’re hoping for.”

By Eleni Demertzis, edemertzis@mysuburbanlife.com

Lombard Spectator