Family circulates petition for rail crossing safety




MATTOON -- The death of Alvin E. Morris three years ago added to warnings to motorists of their responsibilities at the Old State Road rail crossing.

A street light was added to illuminate the crossing where an average of 6,700 vehicles cross daily. In addition, yield signs and reflective striping were added to the cross bucks at the crossing maintained by Canadian National Railroad. The railroad connects with a grain elevator southeast of Mattoon.

“Most people don’t realize a cross buck sign is a regulatory sign that means drivers should yield at that crossing. The responsibility for safety with rural crossings falls mostly on the driver. They have to use their eyes and ears,” explained Chip Pew, state coordinator of Operation Lifesaver and rail safety speciality for the Illinois Commerce Commission.

But relatives of Alvin Morris want flashing railroad warning lights or gates at the Old State Road crossing. They noted their father died when he failed to see a freight train stopped on the tracks while loading operations were under way for the train. It was overcast and raining on the night of Jan. 1, 2004, when Morris was killed.

 

A Coles County Coroner inquest determined the fatality was accidental and avoidable with concerns expressed on the visibility and passive warnings at the crossing. The added warning elements were later added to the crossing, but Morris’ family members believe much more is needed to prevent another fatality.

“Right now, it’s just a situation of another accident waiting to happen there,” said Vernon Morris as he sat at a table with his brother, Phillip, and girlfriend, Paula Dye. “They need more than just a light and some yield signs. This is going to happen again.”

“With what they have there right now it’s almost like they’re mocking us. It’s just not enough,” said Phillip.

They are circulating petitions to gain signatures in support of adding flashing lights or gates for better warning, especially on nights with reduced vision. They have collected a few hundred signatures so far, but they want much more.

“We’d like to get as many as we can to show support for this,” Vernon said.

A decision to upgrade the warning devices again rests with the Illinois Commerce Commission, Pew said. He said different criteria is considered, including the vehicle and train traffic volume for a crossing and the accident record. Crossings used heavily by trucks, whether freight or farmers, might need gates more than those used mainly by passenger vehicles.

The last previous vehicle-train accident at the Old State Road crossing was in 1979 when a driver was injured, based on a rail crossing database. Only three trains pass over the crossing per day, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics.

Pew said those could be two strikes against upgrading the Old State Road crossing, but he added that more than 6,700 vehicles per day is well past the figures for most rural rail crossings. Vehicles are also traveling at 50 mph on average at the crossing.

“I’m not here to say this crossing wouldn’t get any consideration for flashing lights or gates,” Pew said. “The fact is somebody died there. And with that many vehicles crossing each day, it is in the urban minor arterial category. That definitely puts it out of the rural category where you might only have a few hundred vehicles crossing each day.”

Pew said ICC recommends that municipalities get involved with efforts to improve rail crossings. He said petition drives are not the only way to get a crossing upgraded.

State and local officials work with the railroad corporation to get a change. The three entities share costs to finance the changes with more than 80 percent of the cost covered by the ICC.

“ICC spends about $26 million to change crossings across the state each year,” Pew said.

Contact Herb Meeker at hmeeker@jg-tc.com or 238-6869.