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posted: 8/12/2014 9:02 AM

Editorial: All of us have work to do to make rails safer

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Rail safety expert Lanny Wilson pretty succinctly described the state of efforts to protect people from the dangers of crossing railroad tracks. Wilson's take, quoted in Monday's In Transit column by transportation and projects writer Marni Pyke is that "there's still work to be done" to make crossings safer.

Considering the anecdotal circumstances, that statement virtually highlights the obvious. In the past two weeks alone, a Gurnee man was critically injured when he drove around crossing gates in Round Lake, a brother and sister in their 50s were struck and killed in Chicago, apparently as they searched for scrap metal, and a Des Plaines woman was killed as she rode her bicycle across tracks at the Cumberland Metra station. Such accidents are, sadly, almost commonplace.

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So, it was a welcome conference that brought safety experts from around the world -- including Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council -- to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign last week. If only that were enough to produce a solution.

To be sure, safety efforts appear to have had some impact. As Pyke reported, overall, train crashes have decreased by half in the past decade. But highway rail crossing accidents and trespassing accidents actually increased in 2013 and are on pace to increase again in 2014, according to federal Railroad Safety Administrator Joseph Szabo.

These are distressing signs. Ever since seven high school students were killed in a rail crossing accident in Fox River Grove in 1995, the Daily Herald has followed rail safety closely, both in our editorials and our regular reporting. We've highlighted proposals that strive to reduce opportunities for train-car collisions -- such as safety arms that extend across all lanes of traffic so vehicles cannot get around them. Our reporters have sat with engineers and watched what they see as they operate trains along hundreds of miles of track a day. We've applauded various innovations, including in several communities large fines for pedestrians who try to dash across rail crossings while safety lights are flashing.

And yet, we're forced to observe along with Lanny Wilson that there's still work to be done. Lots of it.

Some of that work must come from safety experts, of course. It's encouraging to hear the creative ideas they're studying -- such as warning systems that blare orders when sensors detect pedestrians on the tracks or drones that fly ahead of trains to warn engineers of dangers ahead and even such simple ideas as lights that flash in the pavement when a train is approaching.

But much also remains for all of us, we drivers and pedestrians who too often think that just this once, we can dash under or around the gates. The margin of error in such thinking is very small and the consequences of a mistake are literally a matter of life and death.

We applaud the industry, government and safety experts who continue to seek systems that will make rail crossings safer. Let's remember, though, that much of their work starts with us.

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