Train crew hopes not to see you

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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

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Photo: John Greenwood
A BNSF locomotive approaches a crossing on the East edge of Colona Tuesday morning as the Illinois State Police, BNSF railway and the Colona police conducted a Rail Road Grade Crossing enforcement detail on the Colona rail road crossings. Railroad officials stated that as soon as the crossing lights begin flashing, it becomes illegal to drive through the crossing.

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Photo: John Greenwood
Illinois State Police, BNSF railway and the Colona police conducted a Rail Road Grade Crossing enforcement detail on the Colona rail road crossings Tuesday. Over the past five years, BNSF say there have been 25 "near miss" incidents and two deaths in two years on the Colona crossing. As of mid-morning Tuesday, after making eight runs, two violators were ticketed. Wayne Harbourn, BNSF Railway manager of field safety support , said that although the trains run around 30 mph through the town, the average weight of a train is 6,000 tons and they simply cannot stop in time if they spot a motorist broke down at a crossing.

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Photo: John Greenwood
A vehicle drives through the railroad crossing just off Hwy 84 in Colona Tuesday morning just as the warning lights began to flash. Moments later they were pulled over and written a citation that will cost $250. Railroad officials stated that as soon as the lights begin flashing, it becomes illegal to drive through the crossing.

COLONA -- They look at the ground below them, controlling machines totaling, on average, 20 million pounds.

Jason Bailey, an engineer with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and Matt Hayford, a conductor, ride throughout the country on railroad tracks passing through small towns, big cities, and rural areas. The big fear, maybe the biggest fear between them, is the of what they may see ahead of them.

They fear looking out the locomotive windows at the flashing signals ahead and seeing the cars and trucks suddenly appearing before them, small 3,000-pound machines tempting fate.

'I've had lots of close calls,' Mr. Bailey says as he pushes the throttle forward, the 4,000-horsepower diesel monster passes over metal rails, wood ties and heavy rock gravel.

A close call, no matter where it comes, -- big city, small town, country road -- is a fear they face at every crossing.

'We get to live with the fact we just killed someone or maimed them,' Mr. Bailey said. 'These things (locomotives) just don't stop on a dime.'

Over the past five years, there have been 25 'near miss' incidents and in the last two years, there have been two deaths on the Colona crossings, according to Jerry Dale of the BNSF Police. A near miss report is generated when a train engineer believes there has been a dangerous incident at a crossing, meaning someone tried to cross in front of them in a potential life-and-death situation.

According to Illinois State Police Trooper Jason Wilson, that is considered a very high number.

In May, a 50-year-old Colona woman was killed in a train-vehicle collision on the railroad tracks on Cleveland Road, east of Illinois 84 in Colona.

On Tuesday, the Colona Police, ISP, and BNSF officials conducted a rail road grade crossing enforcement detail. Officers with those three departments were at the four major railroad crossings in Colona, according to BNSF field safety manager Wayne Harbourn.

He said when a train is 20 seconds away from a crossing, the crossing lights will flash. Gates typically drop about five seconds after that.

'By the time we see a motor vehicle approaching on the crossing, it's too late for us to stop,' Mr. Harbourn said. 'Just plain and simple.

'We're in a hurried society, and people don't want to give up one or two minutes. That's basically what it's all about.'

On Tuesday morning, officers pulled over two vehicles for crossing violations. Tickets, according to Colona Police Chief Tim Krebs, include a minimum $250 fine. Two locomotives coupled together in opposite directions, traveled the tracks back and forth throughout the morning in Colona, trying to catch would-be violators.

'I've been down here since 1991 on the fire department or as a police officer,' Chief Krebs said. 'Every year, we have an incident involving a train. Not necessarily a fatality, but every year, we have an incident.

'If the lights are flashing, you have to stop.'

As Mr. Bailey presses a button on his control panel that says 'HORN', and another that says 'BELL', the engineer has some advice for would-be violators.

'Stop,' he said. 'Don't pay the fine. Don't get killed.'