Special Report: Danger On the Tracks


A hub for the nation’s railroad traffic, Chicago has the second highest number of crossings and miles of track in the country. The city's North Shore burbs near the top of the lists for number of crashes, injuries and deaths.

By Jennifer Fisher, Joanna Schneider, and Andrea Hart

Additional reporting by Jacob Nelson; graphics by  A.M. Cole; video by Natalie Kaplan.

When Wilmette-resident Jerome Cetnar was struck and killed by a Kenosha-bound Union Pacific North train in Kenilworth Nov. 5, the 66-year-old man became the most recent fatality in a mounting list of train-related accidents along Chicago's North Shore. His death occured just seven days after the death of Lauren LeVert, who was struck and killed by a Canadian Pacific freight train in Deerfield Oct. 29.

Since 2007, 11 people have died in railroad accidents throughout the northern suburbs of Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield and Kenilworth.  More than half of these 11 accidents occurred at Glenview stops, with four occurring at the Chestnut Avenue stop alone.

More Tracks Means More Risk

On any given day, a variety of passenger and freight trains—including those owned by Metra, Union Pacific, Amtrak and Canadian Pacific—run on the area's two main lines, the Union Pacific-North and the Milwaukee District-North.

Chicago lies at the nexus of the nation's railroad traffic, and it's surrounding suburbs near the top of the lists for number of crashes, injuries and deaths throughout the country, explained Chip Pew, State Coordinator for Illinois Operation Lifesaver, an Illinois Commerce Commission railroad safety program.

"We're the hub of railroad traffic, so we have exposure, we have risk," Pew said, adding that Illinois has the second most crossings and the second most miles of track in the nation.

A freight train traveling at 55 miles per hour takes the length of approximately 18 football fields to come to a complete stop, according to Operation Lifesaver.

But for the average commuter, distracted by smart phones and iPods, startling statistics are not always top of mind, officials say. And many commuters overestimate how much time they have to cross tracks, added Marc Magliari, spokesperson for Amtrak's Chicago offices.

"The minutes that you think you might save by disregarding the train's warning and proceeding across the tracks, if your guess is wrong, are minutes you're never going to get back," he said.

Increased Safety Measures

Chip Pew's voicemail ends with the warning: "Remember, safety is your responsibility."

Railroad safety is his passion.

On a typical day, he might be parked behind the Metra tracks at the Lake Cook Road station, warning people not to cut through the dirt paths worn from the parking lot, through the bushes and onto the tracks on the side opposite the station. Or he might be up at 3 a.m., driving from his home in Highland Park to a town several hours away to deliver his message:

"Trains can be on any track in any direction at any time."

Pew has worked for Operation Lifesaver for the past 10 years. Founded in 1976, the group focuses on educating riders, drivers and pedestrians; ticketing people who don't obey regulations and upgrading crossings and stations to make them safer.

 "We try to reduce the risk-taking through our program," Pew said. "The thought hasn't changed since the mid-1850s, it's how do we get that message across to people in a way that they understand it? Would it be dressing up as clowns and putting something on? Hey, if it worked, we would do it."

In addition to overseeing Operation Lifesaver, the Illinois Commerce Commission also has authority over all public crossings in Illinois and administrates a grade crossing protection fund, explained Pew. This fund—now estimated at $42 million—comes from motor-fuel taxes and is available to communities and railroads to help improve their crossings.

Metra is also a participant in Operation Lifesaver, and conducts its own education and enforcement as well.

The commuter train agency's most recent enforcement endeavor is a crackdown on pedestrians who ignore warnings at grade crossings (where tracks meet a roadway). While Metra has always ticketed for trespassing and has issued 120 tickets for this offense in the last five years, the decision to issue tickets to pedestrians violating grade crossings is a recent one, and therefore no figures are currently available, Metra spokesperson Mike Gillis explained.

Drivers are also subject to ticketing for failure to obey crossing gate signals, he added. In addition to tickets distributed by local authorities, Metra has issued 86 citations this year.

"It generally doesn't take writing too many tickets to change people's behavior," Pew said. "Unfortunately I don't think most people get it. When those bells and lights turn on, that means a train can be there in as little as 20 seconds."

Root of the Problem

Throughout the state, there are nearly 8,000 crossings where tracks meet the roadway.

While the amount of daily traffic at a given site—whether on foot or by vehicle—does contribute to accident occurrence, it is one of only several factors affecting the danger level of specific tracks, explained Ian Savage, a Northwestern University Economics professor who studies railroad safety. Another significant contributing factor is the construction and engineering of stations and grade crossings.

An important piece of the safety puzzle stems from the variance in design from train crossing to train crossing. Area crossings were originally contracted by a variety of rail companies, many with different track layouts and designs and some safer than others—namely those where the tracks run above or below the rail, known as grade separations.

A few stations in Chicago do grade separations—as in Winnetka. But most stations in the north suburbs do not.

"Lots of the crossings and stations are at the same level as the tracks, whereas if you're in New York or Boston, because of the hilly nature of things, people have to go down steps to get to the platform; the road's at a higher level," Savage said. And because so many crossings are at the same level as the tracks in Chicago, the region is a "hotspot" for accidents involving people on foot at crossings.

Room for Improvement

While the ideal crossing is a grade separation—the technical term for tracks that run above or below sidewalks, station and roadways—Retrofitting a station can be very expensive. According to Chip Pew, putting in a grade separation can cost $40 to $50 million. And that's just for one crossing.

Less expensive options involve tweaking the design of stations and crossings. In Lake Forest, where two deadly accidents involving pedestrians happened in the past couple of years, the village is now considering moving the crosswalk farther down the tracks so it doesn't run right in front of the door to the station.

"Unfortunately, most commuters use those bells and lights as an alarm clock," Pew said. And because most stations are built on the Chicago-bound side of the tracks, commuters may wait to cross the tracks until they hear the bells, especially in cold weather.

"We had a number of people killed based on that scenario," Pew said.

Other problems occur where pedestrian crosswalks abut crossing gates for cars. The problem there, Savage said, is that the crossing gates are designed for cars—not for people on foot. He noted that Metra is trying out some model designs in the western suburbs to create better safety around crosswalks at the end of platforms, where commuters can often walk right off the platform and around the gates.

"But you go to any of the stations in the north shore, which are at ground level, and you can just see that it's a free for all out there," he said.

Savage also suggests better platform warning systems that would announce when a train is not stopping and signal commuters to stand clear, for example. In Glenview, there is a station agent who makes just these sorts of announcements, although authorities noted that it's not a requirement.

In some instances, private entities have stepped in to fix Metra safety issues surrounding less than safe grade crossings. Last summer in Highland Park, Ravinia Festival began a $5 million Ravinia Park Metra Station underpass project. Construction management firm W.B. Olson is scheduled to complete the work before the start of the 2011 summer concert series.

The project is aimed at improving grade crossing safety, explained Ravinia Festival General Manager Pat Sanders. Currently, when festivalgoers take the Metra to a Ravinia concert, they must wait for their train to leave before they can cross the tracks and enter the park grounds. Sometimes this wait can take up to a half hour; when visitors leave the park they have to wait again.

"We will trap people in the west parking lot for up to 30 minutes," Sanders explained. "We'll literally have hundreds of people standing there."

On any given concert night, up to 8,000 guests will cross over the tracks to get into the park and then again to get out, Sanders added. Though no one has been harmed at the station, local officials and residents feared it was just a matter of time.

"It is not 'if' you have an accident," she said. "It's when."