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....