Making railroad crossings safer is father's crusade
Second of three parts
Lauren Wilson is frozen in time as a sweet-faced 14-year-old who told her father she wanted to follow in Ronald Reagan's path "from the silver screen to the political scene."
Her theatrical dreams were to be fulfilled March 2, 1994, when she debuted in a starring role with the Theater of Western Springs. Late for practice, Lauren urged her brother Luke, 17, to hurry, and the two best friends raced off in his car.
When an approaching train set off warning signals at the Monroe Street crossing near their Hinsdale home, Luke maneuvered his car around the gate, determined not to let his sister down.
Lauren died that day and Luke was injured. Last month, Lanny Wilson stood and reflected at the site, one of the few suburban locations to now have a safer style of crossing gate. Such gates are among engineering changes Wilson and others say can keep drivers and pedestrians out of the paths of trains.
"Death should not be the penalty for making a mistake, and yet it is the penalty if you make a mistake at a railway crossing," said Wilson, a Hinsdale physician and chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council.
Stories like Wilson's are heard too often in the region. From 2006 through 2011 in the Chicago region, there were 641 collisions with trains involving vehicles or pedestrians, a Daily Herald analysis found. A total of 253 people in the six-county area died coming into contact with trains in that time period and an additional 267 were injured, according to Illinois Commerce Commission data.
Wilson took the tragedy of his daughter's death and turned it into a crusade to prevent similar accidents. This summer, "one of the happiest days of my life" occurred when state and local officials initiated a trial of four-quadrant gates at Monroe Street and the BNSF Railway tracks, he said.
Instead of the more familiar one gate on each side of the tracks, a four-quad system has gates on both sides of the tracks and in each direction of traffic.
The idea is to wall off vehicles so that drivers are prevented from the risky slalom maneuver that killed Lauren in 1994 and countless others -- most recently a Chicago mother of two who collided with a Rock Island Line Metra train Oct. 16 on Chicago's Far South Side. The woman's two young sons were injured in the crash that occurred while she was taking them to school.
"I feel if four-quad gates had been in place there -- that's another crash that could have been prevented," Wilson said.
'Strange and bizarre'
A total of 9.5 million people live in Chicago and the suburbs, where nearly 500 freight and 700 Metra trains chug through daily. But the design of some crossings and stations makes that coexistence treacherous, expert Ian Savage explained.
Mid-platform pedestrian crossings at train stations, angled streets intersecting with tracks so drivers "can easily come around the gates," and platforms transitioning into streets are everyday hazards, he said.
"Some of the designs of the stations are strange and bizarre," said Savage, a Northwestern University economics and transportation professor. For example, "when you have the street merge with the platform, it signals to people that 'you can just stroll around aimlessly.'"
Wilson says railroad crossings are just like backyard swimming pools -- attractive nuisances.
"If you don't have fencing all the way around the pool and someone gets into the pool, that's not their fault -- it's your fault for not fencing it appropriately," he said. "I see a partially closed railroad crossing just as a partially closed pool in your backyard."
Wilson wants to see quad gates installed throughout the region.
The state is installing quad gates along a new high-speed rail line from Chicago to St. Louis. So far, a trial project between downstate Normal and Missonia is operating without hitches.
"Since we installed them, we have not had a single vehicle incident at any crossing where the quad gates were installed," Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said.
But quad gates are a rarity in the Chicago area, with one reason being the cost. The state is installing 247 quad gates along the high-speed rail line between Joliet and East St. Louis, each costing around $495,000. In the metropolitan region, there are only 11 quad gates, including the one in Hinsdale and 10 on CSX railroad tracks in the South suburbs and Chicago's South Side. ICC officials put the price range at $400,000 to $500,000 for quad gates at a rural crossing with just one track; the bigger the road and the more tracks, the more costly.
ICC Rail Safety Program Administrator Michael Stead notes that four-quad gates are "not a panacea. These are warning devices to warn drivers to pay attention."
Also, "in some cases, we've proposed them in a location and the community says, 'We're not interested,' because of the aesthetics," Stead said. "Sometimes, it's a head-scratcher."
The ultimate protection comes in the form of grade separations -- overpasses or underpasses that keep the public and railways apart. Chicago and some older communities such as Naperville boast such structures that were built decades ago.
But constructing a grade separation is an exorbitant proposition. One structure dedicated in Downers Grove this fall on the BNSF Railway cost about $60 million. Another planned for West Chicago at Roosevelt Road and the Union Pacific Railway will cost $26 million.
There are cheaper solutions out there. Among them:
• Medians discouraging vehicles from slaloming around closed gates. Some are popping up in communities such as Barrington, where the Canadian National Railway installed the raised barriers on Route 59 at the tracks. That site is a Quiet Zone, where engineers won't blow train whistles as long as certain safety standards are met.
• Another Train Warning System, or ATWS, devices. These give visual and audible cautions when a second train is approaching, warning pedestrians not to start crossing the tracks after the first train passes.
• Security cameras.
• Eliminating or removing mid-platform pedestrian crossings that people can use even when a train is coming.
• Fencing and pedestrian gates at stations that channel pedestrians away from the tracks and act as a barrier when trains are present.
• Closing railway crossings. West Chicago, for example, closed a crossing at South Aurora Street and the CN tracks as part of a Quiet Zone project. The state offers cash incentives to local governments to eliminate outdated crossings, which resulted in about 20 closings in 2011, Schneider said.
• Pedestrian tunnels. Although the price tag was $4 million, Winfield opened a pedestrian tunnel at the village Metra station along the Union Pacific tracks in 2010.
Union Pacific is collaborating with Metra on $160 million worth of improvements to the Union Pacific West Line that include features such as pedestrian gates and an Another Train Warning System in Geneva, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Villa Park and Winfield. The railroad is also removing some of the mid-platform pedestrian crossings along the line.
UP also intends to construct a tunnel in Lombard and overpass in Wheaton for pedestrians.
Along with engineering solutions, railway experts stress that enforcement -- police ticketing scofflaws -- and education, with programs like Operation Lifesaver, are a crucial part of prevention. Operation Lifesaver is an ICC program that teaches schoolchildren about train safety. Since its inception, deaths at crossings have declined by 72 percent, officials said.
Metra officials also said an annual safety poster and essay contest is a popular way to drive home the message of caution around trains.
Wilson divides prevention into short-term and long-term activities.
"The short-term solution is to educate and use law enforcement. Those (methods) are ready to go and we need to use them regularly. But the long-term fixes are engineering those crossings so that death is not the penalty for making a mistake," he said.
Wilson credits Lauren for guiding him in his quest for safer crossings.
"If I turned the clock back, I would spend fewer hours working and spend more time with her," he said. "I never dreamed I would not have that time going forward. It was taken away from me that day. So I spend time with these railroad safety things I do. I carry her memory. History has assigned her the role of inspirer."
Coming Friday: Preventing railway crossing incidents is crucial, but how to pay for it?