Experts: Fox River Grove crash triggered reforms, but we can do more
Standing near a memorial at Algonquin Road and the Union Pacific tracks, Fox River Grove Police Chief Ron Lukasik points north.
"The bus was facing that way," he says. "It was spun around and took out that light pole. It ended up here."
As Lukasik talks, a traffic light halts drivers before they reach the railroad tracks. It's a common-sense piece of engineering that didn't exist 20 years ago, when a train hit a school bus that stopped partially on the tracks at a red light at Northwest Highway.
The substitute driver was unaware of the Metra express bearing down until just before it smashed into the bus, killing seven teens and injuring 24.
That moment at 7:10 a.m. Oct. 25, 1995, changed everything in railroad safety. And yet in some ways nothing has changed. Fatalities and crashes at crossings in the region and around the world continue to break hearts and vex safety experts.
"Can things be done? Absolutely," Lukasik said, contemplating the re-engineered crossing. "Great things were done here."
Say "Fox River Grove" at any railroad conference in the world and people know what you mean, said Ian Savage, a Northwestern University professor specializing in rail safety.
The scale of the disaster and the fateful combination of causes became a textbook case in what to avoid. Among them: a traffic signal with insufficient time for cars to clear the tracks, inadequate guidance for bus drivers, and a road design that put vehicles in danger.
The crash also caused reforms: better driver training; modifying or installing thousands of interconnects, which feed train information to traffic signals so vehicles can get off tracks; more authority for the Illinois Commerce Commission to monitor crossings; brighter lights on locomotives; and safer bus routes.
In 1995, 505 people in vehicles died at railroad crossings across the U.S. In 2014, that number had dipped to 168, reflecting a trend.
"The improvements have been quite striking," Savage said.
After Fox River Grove, Illinois spent more than $300 million at 330 highway railroad crossings, working with Metra and the freight railroads to upgrade interconnects.
More time was added from when the railroad flashers start and the gates lower to the train's arrival, which in turn lengthened the green light that lets traffic clear the tracks, said Brian Vercruysse, Illinois Commerce Commission senior rail safety specialist. The duration of the green light is protected so it can't be changed without approval.
There were 136 collisions in Illinois between vehicles or pedestrians and trains in 2014 compared to 295 in 1995, Federal Railroad Administration data shows.
"We have come a long way ... but we always need to be vigilant," Vercruysse said.
On Oct. 25, 2006, a 15-year-old boy on a bike died at the same Fox River Grove crossing, at Algonquin Road and Northwest Highway, when he failed to see a westbound Metra express train.
The irony of a crash at a location known worldwide for the 1995 disaster and one that was re-engineered to be safer underscores the uphill battle to protect people from trains -- and themselves -- at railway crossings.
The metro Chicago area experienced an average of 66.4 crashes between vehicles or pedestrians and trains a year from 2010 to 2014, with a spike of 78 in 2014 and 73 in 2013. This year is trending high with 42 collisions January through July.
With the recent spurt in trains carrying crude oil and ethanol through the suburbs, the need to reduce vehicle/train crashes in highly populated areas is even more germane, Savage noted. "That's the other nightmare scenario," he said.
Causes for crashes range from scofflaws ignoring lowered gates to drivers getting stuck in snow or becoming confused.
"The fact is that these incidents continue to occur," said Rick Campbell, an electronics engineer and president of CTC Inc., a railroad signal technology company. Blaming drivers is convenient but unhelpful, he said.
Engineering fixes include bridges to separate trains and vehicles, quad gates that completely block off the tracks when trains are coming, or raised medians to keep cars from driving around gates.
But funding, especially in a state with money problems and 7,720 street-level crossings, is in short supply. One bridge can cost $60 million.
That's where education with programs like Operation Lifesaver and analysis comes in.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign engineering professor Rahim F. Benekohal studies problem crossings, such as one in Glenview where five vehicles were hit by trains between 2003 and 2012.
He dug into the data and learned all the drivers were older than 60, with four in their 80s. With a little more research, Benekohal found several assisted living facilities near the crossing. The next steps will be outreach and possibly better signage.
"You can't just accept the status quo that some accidents will always happen," Benekohal said.
The other remedy is enforcement. You'd think it wouldn't be necessary to ticket in Fox River Grove, but intentional and unintentional scofflaws are there.
Back at the intersection where the bus crash occurred, Lukasik noted that some drivers oblivious to a red stoplight beside them will advance onto the tracks because they're reacting to a green signal at Northwest Highway. The difference is the traffic light at Northwest Highway now gives them time to clear the rails.
People forget, he explained. That's not the case with the police chief, who exchanged a wave with a woman who was a student on the fatal bus.
Lukasik had just talked to her about the anniversary. She asked him for a hug.
"Kids get on the bus to go to school," he said. "What safer environment do you have?"