Advocates for railroad safety say there are three ways to prevent needless deaths along train tracks: education, engineering and enforcement.
Police can help with two of them and there are indications officers' efforts, including posting suicide prevention hotline notices on signs near the tracks, are having a positive impact in several DuPage County communities.
Lombard officer Joe Menolascino recently was recognized with an award from the railroad safety group Illinois Operation Lifesaver for educating commuters and enforcing railroad safety laws.
He's taken all the usual steps like handing out fliers and talking to schoolchildren about railroad safety, and he said he's noticed a decrease in the number of commuters crossing tracks before it's safe to do so.
"On our platform, we used to have commuters ... that would cross when the lights were still flashing," Menolascino said. "We used to have 30 people violating it, now we barely have one."
Menolascino's actions also led Lombard to become one of only two communities in the state to post suicide prevention information near train tracks, said Eric Graf, a special agent with Canadian National Railway police.
After a suicide on the tracks in December, 2010, Lombard police last year posted 20 suicide prevention hotline signs near the downtown train station as one last way to reach people thinking of ending their lives on the tracks, Menolascino said.
"It's at least a first step in trying to get a handle on the problem," said Chip Pew, coordinator of Illinois Operation Lifesaver.
Villa Park also posted five signs with a suicide prevention hotline near its train station last year, officer William Lyons said. The village had four suicides on the tracks between 2009 and 2010, all within a two-block span where the signs now are posted.
"For someone who's even thinking about (committing suicide) it would give them another option," Graf said. "That's a great program and we'd like to see that expand more."
While Lombard and Villa Park are alone in posting suicide prevention information, they aren't alone in their focus on making railways safer for pedestrians, commuters and drivers. Pew and Graf said Elmhurst and West Chicago also are area leaders in promoting railroad safety.
Elmhurst has had a railroad safety program since 1994, when three fatal accidents in one year sparked police to begin educating the public and writing tickets for crossing tracks while gates were down, lights were flashing and bells were ringing, Deputy Chief Jim Kveton said.
Since then, the city has seen only one fatal train accident -- in 1998.
"As long as we keep it in the public's eye and the public's mind, they'll be more careful when they're around railroad tracks," Kveton said.
While some people learn best from education -- slogans like "look, listen, learn," or "don't start dashing until the lights stop flashing," -- others only learn from enforcement and the punishment of a ticket, Graf said.
Between 2009 and 2011, Lombard police had contact with 3,901 commuters and wrote 147 tickets. Menolascino said he educated every officer about railroad safety so they all could help with enforcement.
"In those communities that on a routine and regular basis enforce crossing laws, you find the number of violations and incidents going down," Pew said.
Education and enforcement organized by officers like Menolascino is beginning to make suburban railways safer, said Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council. But more departments should follow the lead of Elmhurst, Lombard, Villa Park and West Chicago in making railroad safety a priority, he said.
"We need to work together and do everything we can to approach zero tolerance of deaths at railroad crossings and along railways," Wilson said.