Rail groups finding more ways to stress safety

Published: 9/30/2010 12:00 AM

As lawmakers and rail officials consider multibillion dollar projects such as the Metra Suburban Access Transit Route, or STAR line, to connect the suburbs, they explained Wednesday in Oak Brook how they also aim to weave in modern safety features.

Dozens of law enforcement officers, academics, business owners and concerned residents attended the biennial "Prevent Tragedy on the Tracks," organized by the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, Operation Lifesaver Illinois and the Illinois Commerce Commission at the McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook.

The event featured a series of panels discussing issues such as progress in regional and local rail travel and new developments in environmental and safety practices on the tracks.

Joe Schacter, director of public and intermodal transportation for the Illinois Department of Transportation, pointed to recent strides like the upcoming grade separations at dangerous crossings like Roosevelt and Kautz Roads in West Chicago and Irving Park and the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks in Bensenville. He said the Bensenville project, which will cost $60 million to $70 million, is likely to break ground next month.

"These investments are expensive but they are worth every penny," Schacter said.

He also pointed to the environmental benefits of proposed projects like a high-speed rail system between Chicago and St. Louis, saying one train on that route would save 20 tons of carbon dioxide emissions compared to the 200 cars it would take to transport each passenger.

Metra officials said safety and environmental upgrades are especially key right now, as customer feedback tells them Chicago-area residents want more mass transit than highway lanes.

"That's a real shift in consumer expectation," said Carole Doris, chairman of Metra's STAR Line implementation.

Other changes coming to protect pedestrians and motorists include new signage along the Union Pacific West Line, which runs from downtown Chicago through DuPage County towns like Villa Park and Wheaton and ends in Kane County at the Elburn station. The rail line will be outfitted with new, electronic signs that warn drivers and pedestrians against what officials call "ghost trains," which are trains running hidden behind another train in front.

When two trains are running adjacent and visibility is limited, the signs will light with the words "Danger: another train is coming" and it will emit audible alarms, too.

Workers tested the warning sign Wednesday at the Wheaton stop.

"It really is going to save lives," said Tom Zapler, a former Union Pacific official.

Summit organizers said these upgrades and others, like quadruple crossing gates, signal an important change that safety advocates have wanted for decades.

"They're admitting these things are working," said Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, whose daughter Lauren Elizabeth died at 14 at a railroad crossing in Hinsdale. "Their change of heart comes from science and studies, but this is preventing tragedies."