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posted: 12/21/2012 10:47 AM

Editorial: We can't let rail safety priority wane

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  • The railroad crossing at Monroe Street and Hinsdale Avenue in Hinsdale has four-quad gates to make it safer.

       The railroad crossing at Monroe Street and Hinsdale Avenue in Hinsdale has four-quad gates to make it safer.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

If you do something careless, or stupid, do you deserve to die?

Of course not. That's why we put fences around backyard pools, cordon off steep drop-offs on popular park trails, lock doors that lead to high-rise rooftops and require that mattresses be flame-retardant.

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Yet, time after time, people who make mistakes along the hundreds of miles of railroad tracks that crisscross the suburbs end up on collision courses with trains, often with fatal results.

In all, 641 collisions between trains and cars or pedestrians occurred in Chicago and the suburbs from 2006 to 2011, Daily Herald Staff Writer Marni Pyke found in an analysis of Illinois Commerce Commission Data.

Along with the 253 lives lost, each collision put nearby drivers and pedestrians at risk, delayed train or highway traffic, tied up emergency workers and consumed funds that might otherwise be used to help make our daily trips across the train tracks safer.

Even in an era of dwindling funding, it's important to find a way to reduce such incidents.

Safeguards at train stations and railroad crossings are meant to prevent a moment's distraction turning into a tragedy.

Yet, safety engineers and others support the idea that even careful, attentive people can meet grim fates along the tracks.

That became clear after a Metra train struck a school bus in 1995 in Fox River Grove, killing seven. Months of analysis and investigation led to new safety standards across the nation.

But other aspects of railroad station and crossing design continue to pose hazards, safety experts point out.

Among them: complicated crossings with angled intersecting streets that confuse drivers, mid-platform crossings that could put pedestrians in the path of a train, and train station platforms that merge with public streets and sidewalks.

All are common in Chicago and the suburbs, which had 63 percent of the state's train-related incidents in 2011, up from 48 percent in 2006.

Those statistics sometimes are at odds with how funds are being allocated.

One solution cited by safety experts is installing four-quadrant crossing gates, which block traffic in every direction on both sides of the track.

While Chicago and the suburbs have just 11 quad gates, $117 million in federal funds is being spent to install 247 of them at crossings between Joliet and East St. Louis, the site of a future high-speed rail project.

With funding for railroad safety improvements very limited, it's all the more important to spend money where it can make the biggest difference.

Train-related incidents kill at least three people a month in the metropolitan area. That's a good indication that we need more discussion on where the priority of rail-safety funding should be.

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