Railway collisions plummet nationwide,­ but not in Illinois

  • Pedestrians walk past lowered gates at the Arlington Heights train station. Crashes at railway crossings dropped by only 2% in Illinois compared with nearly 20% nationwide for the first half of 2020.

    Pedestrians walk past lowered gates at the Arlington Heights train station. Crashes at railway crossings dropped by only 2% in Illinois compared with nearly 20% nationwide for the first half of 2020. Daily Herald File Photo

Posted9/28/2020 5:30 AM

With train traffic decreasing in 2020 because of COVID-19 and Illinoisans hunkering down in the spring, it seems logical that railway crossing crashes would plummet, right?

That's true for most of America, but Illinois is bucking that trend, causing some head-scratching for safety experts. Across the U.S., collisions at public train crossings declined by 19.8% from January through June 2020 compared to 2019, officials said.


In contrast, rail crossing crashes dipped by just 2.2% in Illinois, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

"Illinois remains the hub of the national network, so while freight train volume was down by about 10% to 15% nationally and Metra and Amtrak also ran fewer trains, human behavior doesn't change," Illinois Commerce Commission Railroad Safety Specialist Steve Laffey said.

Forty-four public rail crossing crashes between trains and vehicles or pedestrians occurred in Illinois in the first six months of 2020 compared with 45 in 2019, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

However, in the period from March 21, when Illinois' stay-at-home order began, to May 29, when restrictions were eased, public crossing crashes decreased from 17 in 2019 to 10 this year.

Four people died during that two-month time frame in both years, although five nonfatal injuries occurred in 2020 compared to one in 2019 at public and private crossings.

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Suburban crashes in the spring included one in which an 11-year-old boy wearing headphones was hit by an Amtrak train traveling at 50 mph the afternoon of March 28 in Brookfield.

He miraculously survived. But a 76-year-old man was killed when he walked around gates lowered for an oncoming train the morning of April 2 in Naperville.

"We can be thankful that crashes are down during the pandemic, but, overall, the numbers remain distressingly high," said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

"Illinois should be outperforming the national average during the pandemic on account of our state having so many passenger-train routes in which schedules were dramatically reduced."


Federal statistics show public railway crossing crashes went down by 23% in Indiana, 45% in Michigan, and 24% in Wisconsin in the first half of 2020.

Deaths from trespassing, where people are typically walking on the tracks not at crossings, stayed flat in Illinois with 16 from January to June in 2019 and in 2020. But the number of injuries rose from seven to 11, or 57%.

Nationally, trespassing fatalities dipped from 275 to 268, a 2.6% decrease, while injuries declined from 287 to 271, a 5.6% reduction.

Meanwhile, Metra reported fewer fatalities on its train lines as of Thursday. Suicides or suspected suicides decreased from 13 in 2019 to 10 in 2020, year to date. Overall, fatalities went down from 21 in 2019 to 11 so far this year.

"Lower street and highway traffic between March and June reduced the number of distractions facing drivers, which tends to lessen the risk of accidents. I suspect things by now have returned to normal, which -- tragically -- means more loss of life," Schwieterman warned.

Northwestern University economist and rail safety expert Ian Savage noted, "it is a bit unusual that incidents fell elsewhere (presumably due to less rail and road traffic), but not in Illinois." However, he said that 12 months of data are needed to get a complete picture.

National Rail Safety Week wrapped up on Sunday; send questions or comments about trains in the suburbs to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

You should know

Prairie Path afficionados will hit a bump in the Naperville/Warrenville area through Oct. 8. The Illinois tollway will close the pedestrian and bicycle underpass on the Prairie Path between Eola Road and Route 59 to accommodate reconstruction on I-88. A detour to a barrier-protected sidewalk along Eola Road will be posted, and work might be delayed by bad weather.

One more thing

Union Pacific Northwest and North Line riders can expect some tweaks as of today. As a result of a bridge replacement project involving 11 structures in Chicago, UP North inbound Train 304 will leave Waukegan at 5:31 a.m. and Train 309 will depart from Ogilvie Transportation Center at 6:40 a.m. And on the UP Northwest, inbound Train 658 will be rescheduled to leave 15 minutes later to "reflect actual operating conditions."

Uplifting experience

It's a beautiful sight if you're not in a hurry. As fall approaches, Chicago begins its autumn bridge lifts to allow boats to dock for the winter.

Scheduled lifts at the Chicago River between Lake Shore Drive and Ashland Avenue occur Wednesdays at 9:30 a.m. and Saturdays at 9 a.m. through Nov. 14. Each lift can stretch from eight to 12 minutes; for a complete list, go to chicago.gov/city/en/depts/cdot.html.

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