The danger of railroad crossing accidents in the Chicago region

The Chicago region is a railroad hub. While this may be good for business, it is not great for accidents between trains, vehicles, and pedestrians. Here are figures on the number of accidents from recent years and what might be done to reduce them:

From 2006 through 2011 in the Chicago region, there were 641 collisions with trains involving vehicles or pedestrians, a Daily Herald analysis found. A total of 253 people in the six-county area died coming into contact with trains in that time period and an additional 267 were injured, according to Illinois Commerce Commission data…

A total of 9.5 million people live in Chicago and the suburbs, where nearly 500 freight and 700 Metra trains chug through daily. But the design of some crossings and stations makes that coexistence treacherous, expert Ian Savage explained.

Mid-platform pedestrian crossings at train stations, angled streets intersecting with tracks so drivers “can easily come around the gates,” and platforms transitioning into streets are everyday hazards, he said.

“Some of the designs of the stations are strange and bizarre,” said Savage, a Northwestern University economics and transportation professor. For example, “when you have the street merge with the platform, it signals to people that ‘you can just stroll around aimlessly.'”

As the article notes, there are a number of solutions to this problem. The most effective would be to limit the number of at-grade crossings, of which the Chicago region has many. Of course, this is an expensive option:

The ultimate protection comes in the form of grade separations — overpasses or underpasses that keep the public and railways apart. Chicago and some older communities such as Naperville boast such structures that were built decades ago.

But constructing a grade separation is an exorbitant proposition. One structure dedicated in Downers Grove this fall on the BNSF Railway cost about $60 million. Another planned for West Chicago at Roosevelt Road and the Union Pacific Railway will cost $26 million.

The solution to this is likely a long-term one since new devices cost both money and time. Communities that took care of some of this far in the past are quite fortunate. The article mentions underpasses in Naperville. The suburb has two underpasses, one at Washington Street and one at Mill Road. Both are nearly a century old and were probably easier to construct even then because both of the crossings are away from the downtown and denser areas, an issue for many suburban communities. For example, Wheaton has had multiple discussions in the past about an overpass or underpass in the downtown but such a structure would overwhelm the quaint core.

I wonder if one possible solution to this issue would be to run fewer trains through the denser areas of the Chicago region and route more along the outer edges. This has been an issue in recent years as regional planners and others have looked for ways to move freight through or around the region more quickly. What if this was also promoted as a safety issue?

7 thoughts on “The danger of railroad crossing accidents in the Chicago region

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