Cook County among nation's worst for rail trespassing deaths, injuries

  • The Metra Milwaukee West Line/Canadian Pacific Railway tracks near McLean Street and Big Timber Road in Elgin were the site of a trespassing fatality in 2014. Four other trespassing deaths or injuries have occurred in Elgin. The Federal Railroad Administration has launched a national strategy to prevent such tragedies.

      The Metra Milwaukee West Line/Canadian Pacific Railway tracks near McLean Street and Big Timber Road in Elgin were the site of a trespassing fatality in 2014. Four other trespassing deaths or injuries have occurred in Elgin. The Federal Railroad Administration has launched a national strategy to prevent such tragedies. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/11/2019 12:00 PM

It's a ranking no one wants a part of: the top 10 most-dangerous counties for train track trespassers.

Yet Cook County -- where 109 people died or were injured trespassing on train tracks between 2013 and 2017 -- has the second-highest tally for a county in the U.S., the Federal Railroad Administration reported recently.

 

But railroad trespassing casualties aren't limited to Cook. New state data indicate a persistent trend of train-related injuries and deaths across the suburbs. Next to Chicago, Elgin leads the pack with five fatality/injury cases in four years.

What causes these tragedies? Examples provided by the Illinois Commerce Commission's rail safety division include:

"Subject was standing on a railroad bridge taking photographs."

"Trespasser was walking on the tracks with his back towards the oncoming train."

"Trespasser wearing head phones was crossing the tracks on the right of way."

The first two cases were fatalities; the third person was injured but lived.

"The risks from pure trespassing seem to be highest on freight lines," Northwestern University Professor and transportation expert Ian Savage said. "People seem to be caught up by a train they weren't expecting."

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The ICC compiled trespassing statistics on deaths and injuries from Nov. 1, 2013, to Oct. 31, 2017, that include possible or unconfirmed suicides. An analysis shows that:

• Nearly 84 percent of victims were male, and 16 percent were female.

• The youngest victims were 13. Overall, 29 percent of victims were age 20 or younger. More than half, 51.6 percent, were younger than 30.

• About 44 percent of occurrences took place between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

• Occurrences totaled 27 in 2014, 16 in 2015, 27 in 2016, and 24 through Oct. 14 in 2017, according to the latest data across the six-county region.

So now that we've depressed you, where do we go from here?

It turns out, the Federal Railroad Administration wasn't just piling on when it compiled a list of the top 10 most-dangerous counties for track trespassers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The agency has developed a National Strategy to Prevent Trespassing on Railroad Property program. The aim is to go beyond collecting data by funding solutions, such as fencing or surveillance cameras, at hot spots and dispatching experts to assist communities.

"Research, data analysis and field activities indicate that we could be more effective by working with communities across the country," a Federal Railroad Administration spokeswoman said.

For example, when Federal Railroad Administration specialists visited Cook County they found that numerous fatalities occurred near homeless shelters, schools and food pantries. Investigators also determined that people were climbing over fencing that had been installed.

The agency has awarded about $200,000 as a pilot project to four police departments to prevent trespassing and intends to offer more grants.

While "it is not yet certain what funding or other opportunities may become available," ICC Rail Safety Director Brian Vercruysse said, the commission is optimistic about collaborating with the federal agency.

Trespassing Top 10

The Federal Railroad Administration finds that trespassing-related pedestrian fatalities nationwide grew by 18 percent, from 725 in 2012 to 855 in 2017.

As it begins a national strategy to prevent fatalities, the agency compiled a list of the top 10 counties for trespassing deaths and injuries.

The lead county is Los Angeles, followed by: Cook; San Bernardino, California; Harris (Houston), Texas; Broward, Florida; Palm Beach, Florida; and Fresno, Riverside, Contra Costa and San Diego -- all in California.

One more thing

Why did Elgin accumulate so many fatal trespassing occurences? That's hard to say, according to Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. Most fatalities happened on the Metra Milwaukee West Line tracks between the Big Timber and downtown Elgin stations but not at the same locations.

At the same time, Metra is conducting a suicide prevention and awareness campaign at its stations with posters and training employees in intervention. Suicide cases on Metra lines dropped from 22 in 2017 to 12 in 2018.

Gridlock alert

Expect lane closures and angst on Waukegan Road in Northbrook this week. The Illinois tollway is reconstructing the Edens Spur Tollway (I-94), which means repairs to the Waukegan Road bridge at I-94. Work will continue through the fall.

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