Metra considers cameras at gate crossings

Metra could install surveillance cameras at dangerous railway crossings as a deterrent to drivers who ignore lowered gates and warning bells.

The move comes after three crossing accidents occurred in February that spiraled into 172 delays. But fatalities and injuries involving vehicles and pedestrians at crossings are a continual issue for Metra and the freight railroads in the region.

"We need to do something to cut down on injuries to people," Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said at a Friday meeting. But he added the camera idea was still preliminary.

A total of 253 people died in railway incidents in Chicago and the suburbs between 2006 and 2011, a 2012 Daily Herald analysis of Illinois Commerce Commission data from Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties found. In the same time frame, 267 people were injured.

Metra Executive Director Don Orseno said the agency intended to study which crossings are the most dangerous. "The more people crossing, breaking the law, naturally that's where you put your cameras first. It will solve a lot of problems ... if I was to get a ticket and it was going to cost me money, I would really think about policing myself."

Details about who would handle violations and tickets still would need to be worked out if Metra goes ahead with the cameras. Conceptually, cameras could take photos of the license plates of drivers who ignore lowered gates and they would receive citations in the mail.

In a related issue, security consultants Hillard Heintze reported that they had received 68 applications for Metra police chief. There are three finalists who were also screened by local police chiefs, Metra police officers and board members.

Orseno said he had interviewed the finalists and expected to make a decision soon, pending background checks.

Hillard Heintze is providing an interim police chief for Metra and reforming its police force, which has been criticized for inefficiencies and a lack of training.

Board directors approved a four-month, $200,000 extension of a $100,000 contract with the consultants through July 20, but not without some questions.

"It raises a red flag when you see extensions like this," Director John Plante of Wilmette said.

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