Alarmed by fatalities, Metra leaders vow to reverse trend
A sobering surge in fatalities along Metra tracks has the railroad talking publicly about the problem and committing to prevent suicides and accidental deaths in 2017.
Railroads don't typically discuss the subject, Metra Chairman Norm Carlson said Wednesday. "But it has reached the stage where we need to talk about it. … We are 6½ weeks into 2017 and we have had eight fatalities."
Ten collisions between trains and either people or vehicles have occurred between Jan. 4 and Monday.
Four crashes, two of them fatal, involved drivers going around lowered crossing gates, including a police officer on Jan. 25 in Prospect Heights. No one died in that instance.
The remaining six collisions occurred in suburbs such as Crystal Lake, Woodstock and Roselle when people stepped onto the tracks as trains approached. Each case was fatal, but authorities are still investigating whether the deaths were intentional.
Interventions could range from posters and videos to more police enforcement or engineering solutions, such as gates, officials said.
"We want to work with the counties, we want make sure our message is consistent whether you're up in McHenry or down in University Park," Executive Director Don Orseno said.
"This is a big endeavor. The trend is not going in the right way. … I don't know if it's the world we live in today, but we've got to do everything we can to make this the safest railroad possible."
In 2015, Metra had 25 fatalities, including 19 confirmed and suspected suicides and six other trespasser fatalities, spokesman Michael Gillis said.
In 2016, there were 30 fatalities, including 20 confirmed and suspected suicides and 10 other trespasser fatalities.
One challenge is stopping trespasser deaths that occur along stretches of track far from the public eye. A solution other railroads use involves drone patrols, Metra Director John Plante said.
Metra Director and Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig advocated working with schools on education and prevention.
"We have to look at suicide differently," Craig said. "We can't just sweep it under the carpet."
In 2010, Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano died by suicide on the tracks amid a corruption scandal.
Metra is collaborating with organizations including Operation Lifesaver and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council.
In September, the Railroad Safety Council announced a drive to halve trespasser and suicide deaths involving trains.
Because of prevention efforts by governments and railroads, crashes at railroad crossings dropped in the United States from 10,769 in 1980 to 2,059 in 2015, with 816 fatalities in 1980 compared to 237 last year.
In contrast, trespassing occurrences on tracks away from crossings have barely budged, with 931 in 1980 and 881 in 2015. Trespassing deaths totaled 457 in 1980 and reached 465 in 2015, the council concluded.