The foresight of old railway viaducts

In regions like Chicagoland where there are numerous railroad lines and at-grade railroad crossings, old viaducts exhibit a measure of foresight that benefits today’s residents:

Google Street View image of Vollmer Road viaduct

That factory still operates as Chicago Heights Steel, and the cobblestone portion of Main Street is mostly a driveway leading to it. But just past the factory is a secret passageway of sorts, an ancient viaduct just wide enough to allow one vehicle to pass under the old Elgin, Joliet & Eastern railroad tracks…

There are areas, though, where there are no ways around it, and if you get stopped, you just have to abide. I’ve lived in those areas, but I don’t anymore. The main train line by me is above grade and it’s great. The old Illinois Central tracks, which include what’s now known as the Metra Electric District commuter line, traverse the area atop a big berm as unobstructed motorists cruise underneath through a series of viaducts from Sauk Trail all the way into the heart of Chicago.

According to Metra, the grade separation was a direct result of Chicago hosting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition — city leaders didn’t want messy train deaths to tarnish the event’s image. In the years after those initial express trains from downtown to Jackson Park for the World’s Fair, commuter trains made their way to the suburbs, with Flossmoor getting service in 1900 and Matteson by 1912. The raised platforms, tracks and viaducts followed with the entire line being above grade by the 1920s…

Viaducts are harder to come by these days than they were in the golden age of railroads, and I only know of a few that have been constructed in my lifetime. Despite the hassles that can come along with them, motorists, and likely train engineers too, are happy we have the ones that are here.

Even as railroad lines help put many suburban communities on the map and still provide access to big cities, many local residents just see them as a hassle for the traffic and noise they create. With the automobile dominating suburban travel, trains are nuisance when they block vehicle flow.

I am familiar with numerous railroad viaducts in suburban communities in addition to the ones mentioned above in the south suburbs of Chicago. They were ahead of their time as they allowed access under the railroad tracks, sometimes even before cars were around. Local leaders and officials they foresaw the problems that might arise between ground-level traffic and trains and therefore separated the two flows to let each move on their own. This helps avoid safety issues that still plague communities today.

At the same time, not all of these viaducts have been treated well. As the article notes elsewhere, they can have drainage issues. Their original size is often an issue as today’s vehicles and/or traffic flow is larger, meaning that old viaducts need to be expanded. Letting one car through at a time is better than nothing but many communities would benefit from two lanes each way being able to go under the tracks. Foresight in infrastructure is helpful but it needs consistent attention to keep up with repairs and expanded suburban populations.

Another danger of at-grade RR crossings: bike crashes

One at-grade railroad crossing in Knoxville, Tennessee illustrates the danger such crossings can present to bicyclists:

As many riders know from painful experience, crossing rails embedded in the street is a treacherous undertaking on a bike. There are at least 100,000 at-grade rail crossings in the U.S., not counting city trams and streetcars (which are also notorious for taking down cyclists). But it’s tough to gather data on how many crashes they cause because so few are communicated to the authorities. “The work I looked at, we saw people getting hauled off on ambulances and other things, but very, very few police crash reports,” says Cherry. “There’s a lot of rail infrastructure throughout Tennessee, and I can only imagine how many unreported crashes are occurring statewide or even nationwide.”

That’s part of what motivated Cherry and company to conduct what they call the nation’s first “empirical analysis of rail-grade crossings and single-bicycle crashes.” To them, the problem wasn’t with the cyclists. It was with the roadway design and the fact nobody knows, scientifically speaking, the best way to bike over railroad tracks….

Most experienced riders know the ideal way to do it: As the folks at Bicycling say, cross at a 90-degree angle. That’s the “gold standard” many infrastructure designers strive for. But in cases when the crossing has gaps running in different directions, it might be best to pedal through at 45 degrees. Of course, all this is more complicated when metal tracks are wet, a situation that can turn even a savvy cyclist into a hollering missile directed fast into the pavement…

After pondering a 90-degree crossing that would cost $200,000, partly due to the route being near a river and needing retaining walls, the city and the railroad company settled on a cheaper, roughly 60-degree “jughandle” detour on the side of the street where people were tumbling into traffic. “The total cost was $5,000 for all of that, which is unbelievable, really,” Cherry says. “This has been years in the making, with probably hundreds of crashes there, and it took $5,000 worth of in-house crew time and materials.” (The city later made the path on the other side, located on a greenway, angled to about 60 degrees.)

In addition to bicycles, at-grade crossings are notoriously dangerous for cars and pedestrians. All would do well to pay extra attention when crossing these, even if they are familiar or rarely involve trains. For example, there are several crossings I can think of within a ten mile radius that involve either extra bumpiness, steep approaches, or multiple train lines crossed at once.

While the solution above for bicyclists seems pretty simple, the long-term goal of reducing the number of such crossings is an expensive proposition. It is costly to build bridges and underpasses since in addition to the typical costs of building a bridge or underpass, a solution requires using more land (I recall a proposal to build an overpass in downtown Wheaton that would have obliterated a good portion of the downtown just to provide the necessary ramps) and it can be expensive to construct something while still allowing traffic through (even if roads are closed, trains have a much harder time finding alternative routes).