Metra dives into near-misses with faulty crossing gates

  • Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski, second from right, briefs board directors Wednesday about two near-misses.

      Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski, second from right, briefs board directors Wednesday about two near-misses. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/16/2019 7:53 PM

As an SUV zipped across the railroad crossing seconds before a rush-hour train sped by, you could hear the intake of breath by Metra leaders.

"Whew," one director said, watching video from a train during a briefing Wednesday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

What makes that near-miss Nov. 9 in Mokena even more unnerving is that two actually occurred within 77 minutes at the same location that day on the Rock Island Line, but officials knew of only one until late December.

"It's very fortunate the stars were not aligned," Executive Director Jim Derwinski said, adding such equipment failures are "very, very rare."

The trouble occurred when railway gates failed to activate for trains at 7:25 a.m. and 8:42 a.m. Nov. 9 at the 191st Street crossing in the South suburb. Videos show cars driving across the tracks and miraculously avoiding trains filled with commuters and running at speeds of 50 mph.

Metra technicians diagnosed the trouble -- a short in the electrical circuit that controls the gates and signals -- and the agency instituted new rules to avoid similar crises.

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But agency leaders are still reviewing actions of its crews after the earliest problems involving Train No. 412 at 7:25 a.m. went unreported.

"You can't be in that engineer's head, but it's very disheartening," Executive Director Jim Derwinski said.

Train No. 506, which cleared the crossing despite no gates at 8:42 a.m., came to a stop, and the engineer alerted the dispatcher, who instituted safety precautions.

A Mokena police officer had to swerve to avoid being hit, and his dashboard camera footage went viral in late December. That prompted a further review by Metra managers, who found that four trains went through the 191st Street crossing while the electrical circuit was misfiring.

Beside the two near-misses, the gates worked for a 7:42 a.m. train and briefly lowered for an 8 a.m. train only to begin moving up and down.

The Federal Railroad Administration also is investigating.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Derwinski noted the gates and related equipment are inspected every 30 days, but such intermittent failures are difficult to detect.

"Safety is our No. 1 priority," Derwinski said.

The faulty circuit also caused errors in a signal 1.8 miles from the 191st Street crossing Nov. 9; in such cases Metra's new rules require engineers to run at 20 mph or slower.

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