Editorial: Turning the tide against deaths on the tracks
Longtime suburban residents won't forget the crash 22 years ago that killed seven students when a train hit a school bus in Fox River Grove.
The result of that crash and others like it was an intensive focus on rail crossing collisions that helped decrease the number from 10,769 nationwide in 1980 to 2,059 in 2015. That's encouraging, though it requires constant vigilance by police, drivers and railroads to keep the numbers from drifting up again. Already this year, Metra trains have hit four vehicles that drove around lowered gates, including two fatal crashes.
But data on another type of railroad fatality is following a different trend.
Train collisions with people who aren't at crossings have barely dropped, from 931 in 1980 to 881 in 2015. Deaths rose, from 457 in 1980 to 465 in 2015. Trespassers on the tracks can be dog walkers, fishermen, vandals, selfie takers or people trying to take their lives.
The suburbs, laced with tracks in one of the busiest rail corridors in the nation, get more than our share. Metra recognized that last week, with Chairman Norm Carlson lamenting, "It has reached the stage where we need to talk about it." In the first six weeks of 2017, Metra trains struck and killed six people who were trespassing on the tracks in suburbs such as Crystal Lake, Woodstock and Roselle.
We wholeheartedly agree with Carlson, and we hope discussion quickly turns to action. The suburbs have an organizational infrastructure already at work to find new ways to keep people from being killed by trains, from the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, formed by parents whose children died on the tracks, to Operation Lifesaver, to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, to suburban police who closely watch sections of track where deaths have occurred or have been narrowly avoided.
Of course, railroads already are a big part of that effort. And with Metra sharpening its focus on the problem, the groups are in a prime position to share more information and collaborate on strategies to drive down the number of deaths.
How to do it? Experts have put forth such ideas as drones that detect trespassers on tracks, cameras coupled with predictive technology to identify whether someone near the tracks might be suicidal, fences on trouble spots and anti-suicide campaigns.
"We have to look at suicide differently," Metra Director and Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig told reporter Marni Pyke.
Reducing deaths among trespassers on the tracks isn't an easy goal. But the experience in reducing railroad crossing deaths suggests it's attainable. Let's double down on the problem now, before 2017 moves further along and the year's sad statistics have time to grow even higher.