Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cars strike stopped train... and drivers blame the railroad?

On Monday, there was a somewhat freakish accident in Chicago, where two cars struck a stopped train.

Yes, a stopped train.  Normally, it's a train striking cars or people.  Not this time.

You can read the Sun-Times version of the story here, but while I'm all for giving drivers the benefit of the doubt, the facts are really starting to stack up in the railroad's favor...

1) The railroad had logged the signals as inoperative prior to the accident (source: Sun-Times)

2) The train crew told first responders that flares were in place at the time the train was cleared to cross thru the grade crossing (that would also be evident at the scene, so lying about it would be futile, right?...) (source: Sun-Times)

3) Under Illinois law, once the train safely enters a crossing (protected or not), it has the right of way, and vehicle traffic is to stop at least 15 feet from the tracks (source: Rules of the Road, 1982)

4) FRA rules require that when automatic signals are inoperative, and a railroad provided flagman or local law enforcement are not present, "each train must stop and a member of the train crew must dismount the locomotive and flag highway traffic to a stop before the train occupies the crossing." (source: FRA Signal Crossing Safety Manual)

5) GCOR Section 6.32 (http://www.sdrm.org/faqs/rulebook/movement.html#6.32) states that "When a train has been notified that automatic warning devices are not operating properly, the train must not occupy the crossing until vehicular traffic is clear of the crossing." (source: GCOR)

You'll note that nowhere is it required that a flare be lit, or that a flagman remain present until a train clears the crossing.

So, I'm not sure what else the railroad was supposed to do under the circumstances. They complied with all of the applicable laws, guidelines and even best practices.

So let's focus some attention on the drivers...

1) The posted speed limit is 35 mph (source: I'm guessing based on the nature of the street)

2) The driver of one of the cars also stated he was going 35 mph when he hit the brakes (source: Sun-Times)

3) Normal stopping distance at 40 mph ranges between 120-200 feet, depending on dry or wet pavement (source: various stopping charts on the web)

4) City of Chicago streetlights are usually spaced 80 feet apart, and on both sides of the street (source: personal experience & Google Earth measurements...)

5) Google Earth and Google Streetview imagery of the accident scene clearly shows light poles spaced every 80 feet on both sides of the intersection (source: Google Earth)

6) The poles immediately north and south of the tracks are 50 and 60 feet from the track centerline (source: Google Earth)

7) That amount of lighting would not only forward-light, but also back-light the train (source: my assumption)

8) That amount of lighting should also be reflected off the FRA mandated yellow safety striping on the railcars (source: my assumption)

As I said, I'm all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, but they were unable to see a stopped train from 200 feet away with adequate street lighting.

The only reasonable explanations for that are that they were distracted from concentrating on the road ahead of them, be it conversation, texting, or talking to their passenger or on the phone.

Time will tell and the FRA will no doubt release its report by the time the 2012 elections are decided. Maybe sooner if we're lucky...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Illinois backtracking on "Free Rides for Seniors"

From the title of the blog, I do try to write about more than just flying.  Today, it's mass transportation in general, but there is a rail twist to it as well...

Back in 2008, former Governor Rod "Name Your Price" Blagojevich came up with the idea of offering all senior citizens, regardless of income, free rides on all state funded mass transit systems... Sounds great, except that the State of Illinois is essentially broke, and this is an unfunded mandate.  Shocking, I know, but since then,  transit agencies across the state have taken a noticeable financial hit due to the program.

This was really well intended -- allowing seniors on a fixed income to be able to benefit from all the years they paid into the system.  And I do understand and agree with that concept.  Unfortunately, the law was poorly worded, and as often happens, people quickly found ways to game the system to their advantage.

I ride Metra commuter rail several times a week from the Northwest Suburbs into downtown Chicago.  Some of the lines go thru extremely affluent areas, like Barrington, Lake Forest, Glencoe, and Winnetka.  And it's not uncommon for people living in those areas (bankers, lawyers, executives) to work past 65.  From experience, I've seen guys earning six figure salaries using the free rides program.

If you figure perhaps 500 people who were otherwise buying monthly passes at about $150 each, you wind up with close to $1M per year in ticket revenue which is no longer being collected.

That's not chump change, and I suspect that the numbers of people using the program are indeed far higher than that.

Fortunately, the Illinois House of Representatives has finally taken action -- last night, they voted 95-15 to limit the free rides program to low income seniors only. The current thresholds are $28K for a single household and $37K for a two person household...

As the Illinois Senate has previously tried to limit the program in similar fashion, hopefully this will become law.  Stay tuned....

Friday, August 27, 2010

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to participate in an "Operation Lifesaver" presentation with the Union Pacific Railroad.  For those who aren't familiar with the program, OLS was created by railroads over 25 years ago to create public awareness around grade crossing safety, and reduce fatalities, injuries, and damage caused by collisions between trains, road vehicles and pedestrians.

While many presentations are done in auditoriums, classrooms, and meeting rooms, the presentations this week were a little different -- the UP brought up a business train and did presentations on several of their lines in the Chicago area.

My train was leaving from the downtown Chicago passenger terminal, and was sitting on Track 6 -- one of the two longest in the station, and historically, used for the predecessor trains which ran jointly on the CNW & UP between Chicago and California. A standard freight locomotive was on the head, followed by CNW liveried UP1995 SD70ACe, chair dome "Colombine", chair car "Salina", diner dome "City of Portland", business car "Cheyenne" , Boy Scouts liveried UP2010, and another freight road locomotive at the rear.

Yes, for those of you counting, that was four locomotives for four passenger cars, and otherwise a bit excessive, but I'll explain that in a second....

Full bio's on the various cars are on the Union Pacific website, and most were built in the 1950's.

Yes, I'll admit I'm a rail fan and have been for most of my life.  I've lived along the Harvard Subdivision for over half my life, but had never actually been to Harvard on the train, much less in a classic dome car from the 1950's.  So this was both an educational and a fun thing to be doing for me.

Why the extra engines?  History, and the CNW being somewhat unique.

There are three subdivisions on the UP which host commuter service -- Harvard, Kenosha, and Geneva.  For whatever reason, the Harvard and Kenosha subdivisions use a system called ATS (Automatic Train Stop), and the Geneva sub doesn't.  This requires specially equipped leading and trailing cars (a primary reason why locomotives on the UPRR aren't swapped out with those on other Metra lines).  While ATS equipped locomotives can go just about anywhere, the reverse is not true, and neither the BSA or CNW liveried engines had ATS equipment. So, for this day's operation, two locomotives from the local pool equipped with ATS were required.

With that much power, we had no problems getting up to 70 mph and staying there for most of the trip, slowing only for Mayfair, Deval, and the station stops.  Not too surprisingly, it was a much smoother ride than Metra.  The UPRR has a fleet of about 40 passenger cars that they maintain for PR and company business, and they're kept in top notch condition. Even the upholstery used on the seats was vintage.  In the dome car "Colombine", the upholstery had "UP" embroidered in green and gold.

I must admit, riding in a real dome car is a great way to watch McHenry County fly by.  We stopped briefly in Harvard where box lunches provided by the UPRR were passed around, and the train crew changed cabs.   Not exactly the gourmet menu that was posted on the wall, but still a fine way to watch the world go by...

It was really fun pulling into stations along the way -- you could see some serious looks of confusion amongst those in their 20's, looks of delight from the kids and those in their 50's and older.  And yes, a few people tried to get a free ride into Chicago but were turned away.  Somehow, word was out about the run because I saw a lot of tripods set up along the route as well.

From a timing standpoint, the run on this line was a bit ironic.  The previous week, one of my son's classmates committed suicide by stepping in front of an inbound Metra train on this very line.  While OLS has contributed greatly to improving accidental deaths, there's no awareness program which is going to prevent "Metracide" from occurring.  As much as the schools have tried to promote hotlines, peer groups, and other methods of support for teens in crisis, they won't stop someone truly determined.  The best we can hope for is educating kids early about the impact this has on the train crews.  They're helpless to do anything except blow the horn and call the authorities.  They're also usually the first responder at the scene, which can be pretty gruesome... While suicide in itself is a selfish act, perhaps knowing the impact this particular method has on innocent bystanders might make them think twice...

From an infrastructure standpoint, grade separation is the best solution for preventing collisions between trains and vehicles or pedestrians. That comes at a significant cost and disruption as well, but until that's completed, we'll always have a need for Operation Lifesaver and similar awareness programs.

For more information, visit http://www.oli.org/">Operation Lifesaver on the web.