Train engineers dodge dangerous situations daily

August 24, 2010 4:42:29 AM PDT
Pedestrians running around downed gates and a semi-truck stopped on the tracks -- they are sights Metra engineers see every day as people take risks to catch a train or beat one at the crossing.

The dangerous behavior is nothing new, but Metra wants to get the word out about how risky those chances can be through Operation Lifesaver.

The number of deaths at Illinois rail crossings in the first five months of 2010 is already close to the number reported in all of 2009. Non-suicide fatalities at Illinois railroad crossings dropped by a third last year, from 25 in 2008 to 16 last year. Still, close calls are a daily occurrence.

Speeding along at 70 miles an hour on nearly 1,000 tons of steel is both thrilling and sobering.

"If you've ever drank a pop can and smashed it in one of those can crushers, that's basically what the logotype will do to an automobile," said John Donahue, Operating Practices Mgr., Union Pacific

But still, many people refuse to wait for an oncoming train. Last March in North Chicago, a train's camera captured a family racing across a track. A woman carrying her one-year-old goddaughter didn't make it.

It's the type of preventable accident engineers know too well.

"It affects you a real long time. My first one was around Christmas and with the holidays and stuff, it really tears you apart, and you're really apprehensive for awhile when you get behind a throttle," said Donahue.

ABC7 rode along with Metra and Union Pacific trains from Chicago to Harvard and back. During the trip, ABC7 cameras caught at least three pedestrians darting in front of the train. Crossing tracks when the lights are on is trespassing. Pedestrians can be subject to tickets and even arrest.

"If you run in front of the train (and) you don't get killed, we're not going to - the conductors are not going to - let you ride that train anyways," said John Kilcoyne, conductor, Union Pacific.

The danger is especially high during rush hours and when road construction creates traffic and impatient drivers. At one crossing, ABC7 saw the tail end of a semi stopped on the tracks.

"The truck was there. There was also a family walking right next to it to get to the other platform," said Peter J. Pelke II, engineer, Union Pacific.

The semi moved out of the way with seconds to spare. Fortunately, at the time, the train wasn't traveling at full speed.

" We certainly would have collided with him. I don't believe we would have been able to stop short," said Donahue.

How often do engineers encounter situations like those?

"Oh, that's a daily basis. You see it every single day," said Pelke.

Crews are making repairs and safety improvements at one accident-prone area. The Nagle Avenue Crossing, between Northwest Highway and the Kennedy Expressway, will be closed at least for the next week. But at most crossings, officials say common sense and awareness are more than enough to keep people safe.


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