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updated: 8/11/2014 5:07 AM

Railroad accidents underscore safety conference's mission

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  • Collisions between trains and cars or pedestrians -- a fact of life in the suburbs -- also plague the international community. Prevention was the subject of a global symposium last week in Illinois.

      Collisions between trains and cars or pedestrians -- a fact of life in the suburbs -- also plague the international community. Prevention was the subject of a global symposium last week in Illinois.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer, October 2013

  • Video: Forum on train safety


A driver who ignored lowered crossing gates and headed into the path of a train and a brother and sister killed on a Metra line provided textbook examples of the importance of an international conference on crossing safety last week in Illinois.

A Gurnee man was critically injured Aug. 2 in Round Lake Beach in the first collision, while the second occurred Thursday on the BNSF tracks in Chicago.

The timing could be taken two ways, said Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, a sponsor of the event.

"You could say we're not working hard enough (on crossing safety) -- or you could say there's still work to be done, and that's my take," Wilson said.

"We're evolving. I wish I could say things are evolving faster but we're seeing an evolution in a positive direction."

Experts from Finland, Britain, Germany, India, China and a host of other countries joined colleagues from across the United States at the 2014 Global Level Crossing Symposium held at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. This year's theme focused on preventing trespassing on tracks and safety innovations.

Last year in Illinois, there were 126 collisions at railway crossings with 21 fatalities and 40 injuries.

And although train accidents have dropped by about 50 percent in the last decade, notable exceptions are grade crossing and trespassing fatalities, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo told symposium attendees last week.

"Highway-rail grade crossing and trespassing accidents were up in 2013, and we're seeing a continued uptick in this fiscal year," he said.

Before you get too depressed, here are some interesting innovations researchers from other countries and states presented at the conference.

• Researchers in Finland tested a warning system where if an infrared sensor detects someone on the tracks, a loudspeaker barks out "Attention! You are illegally in a railway area. Please leave immediately." (Only Scandinavians would include "please" in an order.)

• Australians are pursuing wireless technology that sends a signal from a train to a car if a possible collision is perceived. (A suggestion: "G'day, mate! Put on the brakes!")

That type of communication could also translate into an app that could warn someone wearing headphones in the vicinity of a train, researchers hope.

• Safety advocates in the United States also contributed to the international discussion offering ideas both low-tech (lights in the pavement that flash when a train nears a crossing) and high-tech (drones flying ahead of a train to warn of hazards).

The Illinois Commerce Commission's Brian Vercruysse described how the agency is gradually using engineering to fix troublesome crossings with smarter traffic signals at locations in Lombard and Lake County.

And Elmhurst Deputy Police Chief Jim Kveton provided the enforcement side, describing to a group how the city evolved from three fatal rail collisions in 12 months between 1992 and 1993 to 16 years without a rail-related death as of 2014.

It didn't come from rewarding scofflaws, Kveton noted.

"We did not want to reward negative behavior," he said, explaining police did hand out freebies to law-abiding pedestrians.

So how did the U.S. rate as a host for the conference?

"Crossing accidents are a major concern for us ... every year we're losing a large number of lives," said Sanjiv Garg, a safety adviser with India's Ministry of Railways. "There were a lot of take-aways (from the conference) that will help me propagate level crossing safety."

Find out more about the symposium and the latest in rail crossing safety at

Got an opinion about rail crossing dangers and solutions? Drop me an email at

Gridlock alert

Drivers in Lake County should steer clear of Route 120 and the Canadian National Railroad tracks in Grayslake. Route 120 will be closed west of Route 83 through 6 p.m. Wednesday.

You should know

Pace is splitting its Bus on Shoulder Route 855 into three.

The new designations are Route 850, 851 and 855. All three will still travel on I-55 between the suburbs and the city, but with some changes. Pickup spots include Bolingbrook, Plainfield, Burr Ridge and now Romeoville. To learn more, go to

Stay safe

The Chicago region fared relatively well in a survey of pedestrian traffic fatalities. according to the research group Governing. The Chicago metro area recorded 1 death per 100,000 people annually compared to 3.7 fatalities per 100,000 people in the highest-ranking urban center, Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach in Florida.

However, pedestrian deaths in high-poverty Chicago neighborhoods were about twice those of wealthier communities.

To learn more, go to

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