UP: Signalman saw rail problem before fatal train wreck
Dozens of Glenview and Northbrook residents urged Union Pacific Railroad officials to improve bridge safety at Shermer Road and reduce train speeds on hot days at a community meeting to discuss the July 4 freight train derailment that killed a Glenview couple.
And Union Pacific officials revealed that an employee reported seeing a problem with a rail just before the accident occurred, though he didn't think it was big enough to call for the train to be stopped.
Before beginning of the meeting Monday, Glenview Village President Kerry Cummings requested that the audience observe a moment of silence for the victims, Burton and Zorine Lindner.
Union Pacific representatives then shared the preliminary results of a joint investigation with the Federal Railroad Administration into the derailment, which they believe was caused by an alignment irregularity or the buckling of a portion of the track just south of the Shermer Road bridge. It derailed 31 fully loaded coal cars weighing 140 tons each, 28 of which piled up on top of the 86-foot-long bridge on Shermer Road, knocking the girders off their foundations and causing the bridge to collapse, officials said.
"We have found no evidence that there was anything structurally wrong with the bridge," said David Connell, Union Pacific vice president of engineering. "We believe that we had a heat-related anomaly to the track immediately preceding the bridge."
Connell said a railroad employee, a signalman, had noticed an issue with the track, but he did not think it was serious enough to stop the train. Instead he called in an expert who was off-duty, but the derailment occurred before the expert arrived on the scene. The employee himself was not qualified to make a judgment about the safety of the track, Connell said.
"Many of these issues you cannot detect because they actually grow and happen underneath the passing train," Connell said. "It was an extremely hot day in Chicago. It had been preceded by several hot days. Train travels over this, it heats the rail and it continues to push the rail down the track to a certain extent. It is not uncommon to see these two, three, and four feet out of line. It gets to be very difficult for a train car to successfully make it over that."
Longtime Glenview resident Jay Levin said railroad officials should consider slowing down trains to 10 miles an hour on hot days. "I don't think it would have caused as much tragic damage as this particular one did," he said.
The train derailed on July 4 was traveling at 37 mph, according to the onboard data recorder. Per the heat advisory in effect, the maximum allowed speed was reduced from 50 mph to 40 mph.
Connell responded even if the speed was reduced to 10 mph, it would not have made it any safer. "When it's extremely hot, we have temperature thresholds for every part of the country that triggers a heat order. It was the higher level heat order that was most restrictive."
Residents questioned whether there was adequate oversight and inspection of the track and bridge since a 2009 derailment near that location and since repairs were made to the Shermer Road viaduct in 2011.
In November 2009, two Canadian Pacific Railroad freight trains collided there, toppling 18 cars, including one that fell onto Shermer Road. An FRA investigation found an equipment malfunction caused an eastbound Canadian Pacific train to derail and subsequently sideswipe another Canadian Pacific train that was stationary. Another derailment occurred at the viaduct in 1974, officials said.
Connell said the 2009 derailment was due to a mechanical issue on the Canadian Pacific train. He said the federal requirement is for bridges to be inspected annually.
"This particular route has been inspected four times annually and has been for the last several years," he said.
Connell said inspectors had checked the track July 3 due to the heat and were gearing up for another inspection July 4 before the accident occurred.
"Normally we traverse the track at least twice a week. When it is extremely warm, we do it every day," Connell said.
Trains have been running through the accident site at 10 mph since July 6 on tracks laid over a temporary gravel bridge over Shermer Road. That area of Shermer Road will remain closed until a permanent bridge is reconstructed, which could take two months, officials have said.
Residents said when the bridge is ultimately rebuilt, train speeds should be significantly reduced and that the railroad should consider putting in an underpass instead of an overhead bridge. Many residents expressed dissatisfaction with the responses they received from federal and railroad officials.
"It's truly a tragic event," Connell said. "While we can't change what happened, we can learn from it."
Officials said they are working with the Illinois Department of Transportation, both villages and the Illinois Commerce Commission on various options to reconstruct a bridge across Shermer Road.
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