Train Fatalities: What Can Be Done?


By Adrienne Fawcett

The Grayslake woman who was killed in last week's railroad accident was not the first person to collide with a train at the Metra station in west Lake Forest. Since 1988, Amtrak trains have struck and killed four people and injured one person as they crossed the tracks despite warnings that a train was approaching the station. In another incident, a child was struck and killed by a freight train in 2003, bringing the total of pedestrian-train collisions at or near the station to six in 21 years, with three of the fatalities occurring in the past six years. The commuter collisions had many similarities, including: 

  • Four of the commuters were crossing from west to east to catch what each thought was a northbound Metra train
  • All five commuters were struck and killed by an Amtrak traveling 70 miles per hour 
  • In at least three incidents, the Amtrak had been delayed and was not normally traveling through the station at that time
  • All of the commuter accidents happened between 4:45 and 5:30 p.m.
  • All of the commuters ignored warning lights and bells that had been activated

It goes without saying---or rather it should go without saying--that people need to pay attention to railroad warning signs. But no matter how you look at it, the number of collisions is jarring. GazeboNews wanted to know: Does the Metra station at 911 S. Telegraph Road have more pedestrian-train collisions than others in Illinois? And can anything be done to prevent these tragedies from happening? 

The answer to the first question is yes. Stephen Laffey is a railroad safety specialist for the Illinois Commerce Commission, which keeps records of and investigates train-related incidents throughout the state. He said three fatalities in six years puts the west Lake Forest station at an above-average collision rate compared to the 244 other Metra stations. He said there are 125 to 130 collisions at public crossings a year throughout the state.

The second question is harder to answer, mainly because bad luck and human error had wrenching consequences in the west Lake Forest accidents. Police and media reports indicated some of victims were using cell phones prior to their accidents, which may or may not have been a distraction. Rush hour crowds, early nightfall, cold weather, inexperience with railroads and the busy nature of contemporary life also may have played a role. 

Could anyone or any entity have done anything to prevent these accidents?

“It’s not our property, it’s Metra’s. It would not be for us to do,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari when asked if Amtrak has considered making changes in light of the accidents in west Lake Forest. "Pedestrians need to understand that not every train approaching that station is going to stop. Heed the warnings from the trains themselves and from the crosswalks." 

Metra’s response to that question was similar. "Our mantra is expect a train from any direction at any time. If the warning lights are flashing, do not cross the tracks," said spokeswoman Meg Reile. "People need to take responsibility for themselves and use common sense." 

On Thursday, Dec. 17, representatives from Amtrak, Metra and several other parties will hold a summit about the west Lake Forest station at the office of state Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest); other attendees include representatives from the Illinois Commerce Commission, Lake Forest Police Department, City of Lake Forest and possibly the Federal Railroad Administration.

"It’s easy for people to say it's Metra's fault or it’s Amtrak’s fault or it's the Lake Forest Police Department's fault, but that's looking at it the wrong way," said Chip Pew, railroad safety specialist and ICC's state coordinator of Operation Lifesaver, a rail-safety advocacy and educational group. "We want to discuss what each of us can do to come up with a solution, rather than saying it's someone else’s problem." 

What can be done to prevent tragic pedestrian-train collisions? In 2005, the ICC issued a report that analyzed 39 pedestrian-train incidents in northeastern Illinois from 2000-2004. It found 66% of the collisions were caused by the pedestrian disregarding warning devices that indicated a train was approaching. It recommended that new types of pedestrian warning systems should be considered--although it did not specify what types of warning systems.

Would people adhere to them?

"If there are lights and bells and a sign, is it the station that's unsafe or is it the behavior of the people?" asked Mr. Pew. He stressed that he did not want to sound insensitive to the issue of train fatalities. "I take all of these personally. I know I am not the cause of them, but every time it happens I think, 'is this a situation where we just have not gotten the message out? Or is it a situation where we've given it to them and for some reason they're not getting it?' "

Many commuters seem to consider railroad bells to be an alarm telling them it's time to cross the tracks rather than a warning that it's time to stay off the tracks. Perhaps they don't realize that when railroad bells start ringing, a train can legally be in a station within 20 seconds. And that even though west Lake Forest has only two tracks, the train approaching could be a Metra, an Amtrak or a freight. 

When asked how often trains run off-schedule, Mr. Pew said that at stations such west Lake Forest, a person who commutes regularly could assume that a train will come through the station off schedule one out of every 10 times the commuter is on the platform. “I know this doesn’t sound logical to a normal person. You may run in front of that train 999 times out of 1,000. But it’s not worth the risk,” he said.

But back to the question of whether anything can be done to prevent future tragedies such as the one that took Teresa Spradlin’s life last week. 

In recent months, Metra has taken steps to expand the scope of its automated announcement system. For several years, Metra has been using satellite tracking to measure the position of its trains, which it uses to make automated, on-board announcements when a train is a certain distance from a station. Six months ago, Metra broadened the GPS-based system to include automated announcements on platforms. The announcements say something like: "May I have your attention. An outbound (or inbound) train will be arriving in approximately six minutes." Ms. Reile said the GPS system is in all of Metra's stations, including west Lake Forest.

There are drawbacks: Announcements are made on platforms and not inside the stations, and they're not made when Amtrak or freight trains are arriving.

Ms. Reile said it would be cost prohibitive to expand the GPS system to announce Amtrak trains as they approach a station. "Amtrak would have to have our GPS monitoring equipment on their trains---all of their trains. They don't just stay in this region. They would have to potentially equip every Amtrak train in the country at a time when no one has the money to do those things. And there would have to be further tying in of technologies, which is also money driven," she said.

Many commuters believe the station in west Lake Forest should be equipped with additional warning devices or barriers, such as gates. Mr. Pew said platform gates have their own safety issues in that they could trap a pedestrian on one side or even between the tracks. And besides, more than 50% of Illinois train collisions happen at what the ICC refers to as its safest crossings—those that have bells and lights or bells, gates and lights. “For people to say that warning gates will make it safer—that’s not what statistics show us,” he said.

That puts public education and enforcement at the top of the list. GazeboNews will report more on that in a day or two.


December 20, 2009

Train Fatalities: Elmhurst Case Study

If you cross railroad tracks when you're not supposed to in Elmhurst, you could get a $250 ticket.  But if you stay put after warning bells, lights and/or gates are activated, you could get a free bagel. Or fries. Or a cup of coffee.

Elmhurst police started enforcing railroad safety in late August 1994 after a 12-month period in which three people died in train-related collisions in the suburb. Since then, Elmhurst has experienced just one fatality in 15 years and as of January 2010 it will have gone a dozen years with no train-related fatalities, said Commander Jim Kveton.

"When I first started doing this, I used to write 10 to 12 tickets at a time. But after a couple of years, I noticed a change in behavior, so I thought we should have positive reinforcement too," said Cdr. Kveton. "I went to local businesses and got coupons for bagels, fries, coffee. I gave tickets to people disobeying the warning signs, and I gave coupons to people who were obeying the warning signs." 

Elmhurst eventually applied for and received grants from Operation Lifesaver to enhance railroad safety. The program involves the city, police, fire and public works departments. It includes signage, traffic control, public education and enforcement, and it's built around the theme "Don't get caught dead on the tracks." Click on this link to read about the program and view a public service announcement on Elmhurst's website. Click here to read up on Operation Lifesaver in Illinois, and click here to visit the national website.