Trains given 'insufficient warning' to dangers

Law enforcement says it's not just a Chicago problem.
March 6, 2008 5:29:10 AM PST
It's rush hour and a passenger train is bearing down on a crossing in the suburbs.A fully loaded gasoline tanker truck has stalled on the tracks. Police are on the scene though and will contact the approaching train, so everything is under control, correct?

Don't count on it.

It was a minivan, not a gas truck that was stuck on the tracks in January and hit by two Metra trains. No one was hurt, but the dramatic recording from a police camera was seen around the world.

What was lost in the spectacle was this: even in emergencies, police have no way to directly contact trains.

"Our dispatcher needs to call Fort Worth in Texas, which is the dispatch center for the Burlington Northern," said Dep Chief Mark Wodka, Hinsdale Police Dept.

Here's how it goes. A patrol officer determines that there is an emergency on the tracks then radios police headquarters where an operator dials the number to the train dispatcher with Burlington Northern, that is at this central office in Fort Worth, Texas. The railroad dispatcher in Texas is told where the problem is in Illinois. The Texas dispatcher then contacts the train engineering staff, which issues a stop order.

"At least three or four minutes is needed to prompt the call; to have someone in Texas receive the call and to dispatch it to the engineer at the rail line," said Wodka.

"I think that there are certain advantages to local municipalities having the ability for police fire emergency response vehicles to communicate directly with railroad dispatchers or with trains," said Chip Pew, Illinois Commerce Commission.

Pew oversees Operation Lifesaver, the state effort aimed at reducing train-vehicle collisions here in the rail hub of the U.S. In 2005, Illinois led the nation in railroad crossing deaths with 31. Last year there were 28.

"It's flip of a coin whether or not, if you're struck by a train, whether you'll live or whether you won't," said Pew.

Along the Burlington line, police have to call the railroad's command center in Texas dozens of times a year, and most accidents are prevented. But some believe there's a better way.

"This is 2008, and maybe some of their systems need to be changed," said State Rep Patti Bellock, R-Westmont.

More than a year ago, state representative Bellock convened a meeting of suburban officials and railroad executives, and she believes law enforcement should be able to communicate directly with train conductors.

"It can make the difference in saving three or 400 people's lives," said Bellock.

After January's fiery crash, there was another meeting with railroad officials. Clarendon Hills' fire chief said they were provided with the railroad radio frequency to use in case of a crisis on the tracks.

"They just told us to get on the radio and go, 'emergency! Emergency! Emergency!" said Chief Brian Leahy, Clarendon Hills Fire Dept.

That is precisely what Leahy says he did last month when two men jumped off a Metra train in his town. He tuned the fire radio to Burlington Northern Santa Fe and reported the emergency.

"We just said we were in Clarendon Hills; we got a man down on the tracks and to please shut the train traffic down," said Leahy.

Railroad executives don't like it. In a statement, Burlington Northern said a phone call to Texas is the "safest and quickest way to...bring trains in any given area to a stop for an emergency situation? Bypassing that system and the dispatcher with direct communication to trains would...potentially compromise both public safety and the safety of train operations" by serving to "confuse and distract train crews." And they cite federal regulations prohibiting the use of radio frequencies by non-railroad personnel. But there are other methods.

Some suburban police use old-fashioned flares to signal trains of an emergency ahead, hoping they'll slow down. And signs were recommended by federal safety officials 20 years ago to be put up at crossings so motorists could call in rail emergencies. But a 1996 report determined that "implementation of emergency notification systems" was "slow." In the Chicago area, the majority of the signs are on equipment buildings that flank the tracks, barely noticeable to motorists.

Burlington officials say when emergency notification signs are on utility sheds, they don't obstruct the view of trains and are less likely to be knocked down than if they were on poles where motorists might better see them. Metra commuter rail officials say at the crossings they own, emergency 800 numbers are on the actual signal signs and more visible to drivers.