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TMCNet:  Railroads detail safety changes for pedestrians

[February 28, 2011]

Railroads detail safety changes for pedestrians

Feb 28, 2011 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Freight trains will no longer be held back from rolling through commuter rail stations in the west suburbs during rush hour beginning this week, in exchange for new safety systems, fences and gates designed to prevent accidents with pedestrians.


Railroad officials Tuesday will activate a new safety system on Metra's Union Pacific West Line that's being billed as the most comprehensive of its kind in the U.S. -- one that uses signs with both visual and audio alerts to warn pedestrians to watch for more than one train.

The new measures are a tradeoff for Union Pacific and Metra, lifting longstanding policies designed to protect pedestrians when one train is in a station while another approaches. Now, freight trains will roll alongside Metra trains during peak commuting times and when passengers are boarding and exiting at eight Union Pacific West stations.

In addition, Metra will ease its policy that prohibits commuter trains from entering a station when another train is picking up or dropping off passengers.

Union Pacific and Metra officials say they are confident the new safety equipment will minimize risks to pedestrians and allow trains to safely travel past a station when a commuter train is stopped there.

The measures are part of a major upgrade of tracks, crossings and equipment on the Union Pacific West Line. The railroads are making changes on the 44-mile-long line to improve the flow of freight and commuter trains. The project is expected to cost $132 million.

In addition to the new signs, the railroads have added fencing and pedestrian paths at the eight stations, safeguards intended to keep people behind gates and prevent them from crossing tracks at dangerous locations.

The safety measures already have been added at Elmhurst, Villa Park, Winfield, Geneva, Glen Ellyn, College Avenue, Maywood and Melrose Park. Safety work has yet to be finished at Bellwood, Berkeley, Wheaton and Lombard.

The remaining track and crossing work on the line won't be completed until 2013, Union Pacific said.

An uneasy co-existence of people and products, the UP West Line is Metra's seventh-busiest, carrying 30,000 passengers a day on 60 trains. It's also an important rail shipping corridor, with an equal number of freights daily.

Starting Tuesday, Union Pacific will lift its longstanding procedure in which it holds back freight trains along the Metra line during peak passenger hours in the morning and evening.

"The safety enhancements, along with the line improvements, will enable us to operate freight during rush hours," said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis.

He noted that the curfew would only be lifted at the eight stations where safety improvements have been made. Freight trains will operate on the middle of three tracks at those locations.

At the four stations where safety work hasn't been completed, freight trains will not enter if a passenger train is stopped there, Davis said.

Metra officials said they are confident that Union Pacific has installed a comprehensive and safe system.

"From a practical standpoint, we don't expect a heavy increase in freight during peak periods," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

Rail safety experts, meanwhile, said they will closely watch the new operations.

Dr. Lanny Wilson, head of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, an organization he founded after the death of his daughter at a rail crossing in 1994, said he was impressed by Union Pacific's presentation on the safety improvements at a conference in September.

But he expressed concern that freight and passenger trains would operate in closer proximity.

"As much as I love the increase in pedestrian safety that will potentially come from the upgrades, there's no good (result) if by increasing the train traffic we start seeing an increase in incidents," Wilson said. "We're all about trying to approach zero deaths and injuries and crashes. We have a long way to go. I hope this takes us in that direction." Police Cmdr. James Kveton, of Elmhurst, regarded as having one of the strictest rail crossing enforcement patrols anywhere, also lauded the new safety steps. But Kveton said he would have to wait and see what effect the freight changes would make.

"Hopefully, there will be a big enough improvement all around," he said.

The risk to pedestrians rises when more than one train arrives at a station at the same time, experts say.

In a 2004 incident, a 10-year-old Schaumburg boy was struck and killed by a westbound Metra express in River Grove, just after he had gotten off an eastbound train.

Metra concluded after an investigation that engineers had not followed safety procedures by communicating with each other and keeping the second train out of the station in that collision.

Union Pacific and Metra officials say they believe the Another Train Warning System will help deter this by preventing pedestrians from stepping onto the tracks before all trains have cleared and the gates and signals have deactivated.

When a second train approaches, a red "Danger!" will begin flashing and a white "Another train coming" sign will illuminate. A voice will repeat: "Danger, another train coming." Although similar systems are in use elsewhere, officials believe the Another Train Warning System is the most advanced system of its kind.

"This type of signage is the first in the country," Davis said.

Other experts said the new fencing and pedestrian paths also will improve safety.

"I think some very low-tech and relatively inexpensive designs, such as channeling passengers off the platform away from a crossing, has big payoffs," said Ian Savage, a professor of economics and transportation at Northwestern University.

Chip Pew, head of the rail safety organization Operation Lifesaver, said most rail accidents do not involve second trains, and there was no specific data on these incidents.

During 2010 in Illinois, there were 28 fatalities resulting from collisions between trains and vehicles or pedestrians at public crossings, up 75 percent from 16 fatalities in 2009, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission.

While welcoming word of the new safety measures, Union Pacific West Line commuters noted that despite vigorous rail crossing violation enforcement campaigns by police, pedestrians still stepped onto the tracks without waiting for warning gates to go up.

"Anything they can do to increase safety and (improve) the flow of commuter traffic is worth it," said longtime commuter William Donehoo. "Whenever there's pedestrian versus train, it's always the same score: train 1, pedestrian zero." rwronski@tribune.com To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.chicagotribune.com. Copyright (c) 2011, Chicago Tribune Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.

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