All too often, people choose to try to outrun trains and go around crossing guards rather than waiting until trains have cleared the track. This can be deadly.
Nationwide, there were 265 fatalities at railroad crossings last year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis.
In Illinois, there were 22 fatalities last year at train crossings last year, with the state trailing only California and Texas in the highest number of deaths at crossings. Figures for St. Clair and Madison counties were not immediately available.
East St. Louis Police Capt. Bobby Cole said vehicle-train collisions happen more often than most people imagine. He said he just recently wrote a ticket to a motorist who decided to ignore train warnings and raced around a downed railroad crossing arm.
East St. Louis is home to many railroad crossings and several train switching yards. Cole said there are a number of trains that come through East St. Louis, including NSF, CSX, Southern and Terminal.
“We see quite a few people who try to beat the train across the track. We issue them tickets when we catch them doing that. But, it is a constant. They put their lives on the line to beat the train. It never works out in their favor when it is a car versus the train. The train always wins.”
In East St. Louis, there is a rail yard right behind Officer Funeral Home on Missouri Avenue, and sometimes the trains are stopped on the track for a long time. Motorists who go that way a lot know this, so you often see people trying to beat the train at that spot.
James Bush, who owns Bush Coal, Ice and Wood Co. on Missouri Avenue, said he had just seen someone who went around the railroad crossing guard just prior to a News-Democrat reporter calling him Thursday.
“It happens at least two times a day,” Bush said. He said it usually happens when there’s lots of traffic in the evening. “Today, the train wasn’t 100 yards away when the driver sped across the tracks to avoid waiting until the train had passed. They’re in a hurry and don’t want to wait.”
For years, Illinois State Police has conducted an operation called “Trooper on a Train,” where ISP troopers ride on trains watching for people who pull in front of them around crossing guards, then radio to waiting troopers who give the drivers tickets.
There haven’t been any derailments in East St. Louis in a while, but there was a large derailment a year ago in Belleville. They are not uncommon.
One motorist who regularly encounters trains in East St. Louis said it’s often a lengthy waiting process, but he has never tried to beat a train.
Ben Phillips said: “I won’t say I am OK with waiting because most of the time when the train is coming, I am in a hurry to get somewhere. I wish they didn’t just sit still for so long. It can be very frustrating. But I want to be here, so I won’t try to beat the train.”
Another motorist, Doug Jackson, said he doesn’t see trains running as much anywhere else as in East St. Louis. “Everybody comes to and through East St. Louis. I don’t understand why the trains have to come so much and stand on the tracks forever. I know they are carrying different stuff to different places, but it seems like they come when people have places to go. I don’t like to wait a long time.”
Bush, whose business has been at 21st Street and Missouri Avenue for 70 years, said people can hear the trains as they approach the area because of their loud horns, and they can see the flashing lights at the crossing a long way off. Sometimes the wait is 30-45 minutes long and sometimes 15-20 minutes. Because people don’t know how long the wait is and they may be running late to get somewhere, they make a poor decision, Bush said.
We see quite a few people who try to beat the train across the track. We issue them tickets when we catch them doing that. But, it is a constant. They put their lives on the line to beat the train. It never works out in their favor when it is a car versus the train. The train always wins.
East St. Louis Police Capt. Bobby Cole
“If you go around the crossing, you are wrong. If you choose to risk your life, you are foolish,” he said.
Officer Funeral Home, 2114 Missouri Ave., is situated next to a busy set of tracks. Owner Carl E. Officer said he sees people going around the crossing arm every week. “There’s nothing going on in their lives that important that they can’t wait five or 10 minutes,” he said. “There’s nothing so important that anyone should risk losing their lives over.”
Officer said that 30 years ago the city had the opportunity to build an overpass at the crossing with mostly state money but declined. “I didn’t agree with their rationale, even though it would have displaced my funeral home. I thought it was a wise move.”
Instead, there were two overpasses built in Alorton. Asked why the city refused, Officer said some residents and business owners didn’t want to be displaced.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said he can’t remember the last time there was a car-train accident in Belleville. Some tracks in the city now only see one or two trains a day. Other tracks in the city have been idled altogether.
“Most people in Belleville are patient unless the gates are broken. Then, you will see traffic backed up,” he said. “You better respect train crossings because you’re not going to win. It’s just a fact.”
Kristen South, communications director for Union Pacific Railroad, said typically railroad crossings are designed by the Federal Highway Administration. She said public safety is a priority with Union Pacific.
She said it is a common misconception by the public that railroads decide where and what type of highway crossing signals are installed. That is governed by the federal government. Railroad crossing signal installations and signal upgrades are primarily paid for with federal money. Each state gets federal money every year for grade crossing improvements.
South said it is up to each state to develop a system to determine a priority list for crossing safety improvements based on a variety of factors. After the state determines which crossings are to be upgraded, it contacts the railroad, and then the railroad meets with state and local representatives on site to discuss the proposed upgrade. After that, the railroad designs the circuitry.
She said the basic technology for the highway rail-grade crossing warning system dates back to 1870, when the track circuit was invented.
“The idea of using electric current in railroad crossings for signaling was an idea that had been suggested as early as 1848. By dividing the railroad into blocks or sections, a circuit was created to signal trains when a specific section of track was clear or occupied with other trains,” South explained.
As the number of trains on railroad tracks increased in the latter half of the 19th century, South said it became clear that people who wanted to cross the tracks needed to be warned.
“Initially, there was a variety of colorful signs posted at crossings, and watchmen were stationed at the busier crossings to warn people of oncoming trains. Some of the crossings were manually lifted and lowered. Because it was not practical to have people stationed at all of the crossings, it was thought that an automatic signal was needed to alert the public,” South said.
Today, the basic designs come in a wide array of variations, depending on the complexity of the street crossing and the railroad.
“Most crossing gates are designed to warn against motor traffic in oncoming lanes, covering half the street, to allow motorists who are on the tracks an opportunity to escape from the tracks,” South said.