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updated: 10/11/2012 6:17 PM

Experts say rail crossing safety costly but crucial

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  • Daily Herald file photoAccidents like this August 2010 fatal collision with a car and Metra train in Des Plaines can be prevented, experts say.

    Daily Herald file photoAccidents like this August 2010 fatal collision with a car and Metra train in Des Plaines can be prevented, experts say.


Saving someone's life at a railway crossing could be as easy as adding more gates.

But making crossings in Illinois less hazardous is costly, experts said Thursday at a DuPage Railroad Safety Council conference.

Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said the agency is committed to eliminating highway and railroad deaths.

For example, the state is adding four-quad gates -- involving two gates on each side of the road -- on crossings along the high-speed rail route it is creating between Chicago and St. Louis. So far, the gates have gone up between Normal and Mazonia.

"Since we have installed the quad gates, there has not been a single collision," Schneider said. Such equipment upgrades and more costly underpasses or overpasses require extensive funding, which is in short supply, she acknowledged.

"Because of alternative fuel and hybrids, we're seeing motor fuel taxes decline. That's one of the challenges as we go forward," Schneider said.

Despite those challenges, there's an urgent need to focus on safety as transit ridership grows, said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

"The number of opportunities for accidents are higher," Schwieterman said. He added surveys of pedestrians taking Metra show more and more are using personal devices, which could lead to increased accidents when people don't look where they're going.

Railway executives said the cost of a railway accident cuts across many sectors and is one reason upgrading safety is essential.

Lyn Hartley, BNSF director of public projects, cited an accident involving a dump truck on the tracks that caused millions of dollars in damage to the train and created a domino effect of expenses and trauma.

"There was an impact on the truck driver and his family, an impact on the train crew, a definite impact on BNSF shippers because if equipment or cargo is damaged in a derailment, it's trash," Hartley said.

Also involved were emergency workers, government investigators, the cleanup crew and ultimately attorneys when lawsuits are filed, he said.

"We hope to make the argument that safety is good business," said safety council Chairman Lanny Wilson, whose daughter, Lauren, was killed in a 1994 crossing accident in Hinsdale.

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