First of three parts
At least three people a month will die when they are hit by a train in the Chicago region next year, according to statistical forecasts.
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Nearly three people a month will be injured. And twice a week, collisions between trains and vehicles or trains and pedestrians will snarl traffic, delay commuters and break hearts.
Some towns are more dangerous than others. Des Plaines led the suburbs in incidents from 2006 to 2011, with Harvey, Blue Island, Naperville, Wheaton, Joliet, Dolton, Cicero, West Chicago and Glenview not far behind, according to Illinois Commerce Commission data.
In all, 641 collisions were caused by the volatile mix of pedestrians, vehicles and trains in the metropolitan region from 2006 to 2011.
Though collisions statewide are trending down, the number that occur in Chicago and the suburbs annually did not show a significant decline over the six-year period.
The frequency of incidents might not be surprising. The Chicago region is home to 9.5 million people and is the largest freight rail hub in the nation, serving the six biggest railways in North America.
Yet, regulators, rail safety advocates and survivors say more needs to be done to protect against collisions involving trains.
For the lucky majority, the collisions are minor, but some will be life-changing.
"She wasn't just my loss," said Jason King of Lakewood. His fiance Traci Spradlin died two years ago after an Amtrak train hit the Grayslake woman as she crossed the tracks in Lake Forest.
"My kids lost her, her son lost her, our friends lost her, our families lost her. You never realize just how many lives someone touches until you see the outpouring of grief when that person is gone."
'Bright orange flame'
A total of 253 people died in railway incidents in Chicago and the suburbs between 2006 and 2011, according to a Daily Herald analysis of ICC data from Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
About 25 percent of those deaths occurred at crossings and involved vehicles or pedestrians. Another 36 percent were people trespassing on the tracks. About 39 percent were apparent suicides.
Along with those who died, 267 people were injured in the six-year period, with 64 percent of those cases occurring at crossings.
Injuries spiked in 2011 due to a May 13 Metra crash in Mount Prospect.
"It's not something you forget very easily," said Valerie Runes, a Metra passenger on the Union Pacific Northwest Line that day. The Arlington Heights attorney had boarded in Mount Prospect and taken a seat a little further back than her usual location. "In retrospect, that was a good thing," Runes said.
Meanwhile, just east of the downtown Mount Prospect station, Kazimierz Karasek ignored a lowered crossing gate and drove his concrete truck onto the tracks in the path of the oncoming Metra train. The collision was catastrophic, killing Karasek and injuring 28 people on the train.
"The train rocked back and forth," Runes said. "Everyone looked at each other and wondered what was going on; then I saw on my right, a huge sheet of bright orange flame."
Despite such dire lessons about the dangers of circumventing warning gates, statistics indicate drivers will continue breaking the law in 2013.
More than 40 percent of the collisions in the Daily Herald analysis involved a vehicle, and a majority of those drivers ignored gates.
Except for Chicago, Des Plaines had the highest tally of railroad accidents in the suburbs, with 16 over six years, ranging from cases where no one was injured to fatalities in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.
One of the strengths of the city is its rail network, Mayor Marty Moylan said. Metra, Union Pacific and Canadian National railroads crisscross Des Plaines, making it a transit and business hub, he said. But it also means the possibility of trouble at any one of the 32 crossings.
"It's something we live with and we have to be ever-vigilant," Moylan said.
Des Plaines' situation is a microcosm of the state. Illinois has 7,883 grade crossings at highways and roads, second only to Texas in the nation.
And many of those crossings in northeastern Illinois handle not only multiple freight and Metra trains daily but 20,000 to 40,000 vehicles, according to the ICC.
For example, the Canadian National Railway crossing at Roosevelt Road in West Chicago has an annual average daily traffic count of 31,000.
Other suburban hot spots included: Harvey and Blue Island with 11 incidents each; Naperville with 10; Wheaton, Joliet, Dolton and Cicero with nine; West Chicago and Glenview with eight; and Melrose Park, Franklin Park, Downers Grove, Crystal Lake, Berwyn, Barrington and Alsip with seven. Incidents include collisions between trains and pedestrians or drivers even when there were no injuries, and suicides.
'I shake my head'
Elgin experienced five railroad incidents between 2006 and 2011. Police Cmdr. Glenn Theriault recalled when a Carpentersville woman drove a van around a lowered gate at the busy Kimball Street crossing in 2006, killing her infant nephew and two sisters.
"I just shake my head," said Theriault, who helps coordinate stings of scofflaws near the city's Metra station. "Why risk losing your life to save a few minutes?"
The toll of deaths and injuries give rise to a debate of whether it is solely the victim's fault or the railroads' for badly designed stations and crossings in a highly urbanized area.
Jason King got engaged to Traci Spradlin in the summer of 2009 and they planned to be married in January 2010. She died as she raced across a since-removed mid-platform pedestrian crossing in Lake Forest, thinking the approaching train was King's slow-moving Metra. Instead, it was a speeding Amtrak.
"She didn't want to miss me," King said. "I will forever maintain that a warning, stating the approaching train was an Amtrak that would not stop at the station, would have prevented Traci's death."
There were 252 railway incidents and collisions in Illinois in 2006; that fell to 174 in 2011, a time when the recession also had driven rail traffic downward.
But in the Chicago region, that drop isn't as pronounced. There were 121 incidents in 2006 and 109 in 2011. Incidents occurring in the suburbs rose from 48 percent of the state's total in 2006 to nearly 63 percent in 2011.
"In general, the trend is downward in a good direction," ICC Rail Safety Program Administrator Michael Stead said. It reflects efforts to engineer safer crossing and public education, such as the Operation Lifesaver program, he said.
"There are more educated people out there, but still there are those incidents here every year where someone makes a poor choice," Stead said.
Statewide, there were 71 fatalities in 2006 and 71 in 2011. More than half occurred in the Chicago region, with 36 in 2006 and 47 in 2011.
Does that mean deaths along railway lines are inevitable?
Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, whose grandmother was killed in an automobile accident, wants to buck the trend.
The numbers "tell me there's work that still needs to be done," she said. "My perspective is one fatality is one too many."
• Coming Thursday: Can engineering save lives along the tracks? A look at prevention.