May Editorial: The unbearable crossing

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief
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Skanska awarded $96 million contract for grade separation project.
Operation Lifesaver, Inc.

Dangerous is not always pulled after the expiration date.

In my book something that is considered dangerous should be consumed within seconds, minutes or hours. If you have a dangerous outlet in your house, you take care of it immediately. If there is a dangerous bear a few yards in front of you, you take care of the situation immediately.

However, unless your heart is about to get ripped out of your chest, other events usually get in the way and cross out the word “immediately”. These days I have about 30 child events that get in the way of addressing anything dangerous in my home, so I often use the power of fear to postpone the fix. “Don’t you dare come close to that outlet, or you will die!” It usually works.

Back in 2005, a Metra commuter train was involved in an accident with six vehicles at Grand Avenue in Elmwood Park, Ill. Within hours, the National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene, and eventually concluded that the railroad crossing was “inherently dangerous.”

It’s been 16 years, and that big bear is still using those tracks every day and night, waiting for its next victim that can’t move.

The Grand Avenue crossing is a complex one. The tracks cross at a 10° angle, which actually makes the railroad crossing 366 ft wide. Vehicles must cross 179 ft of rail to get to the other side of the crossing, and during rush hour that task can sometimes be difficult. In comparison, about a half mile from the Grand Avenue spot the same three tracks are laid at a 70° angle that cover four lanes of traffic at Harlem Avenue, and motorists cross just 35 ft of rail. According to Elmwood Park Village Manager Paul Vope, cars often get trapped between the gates at Grand Avenue.

Between 1956 and 2005, the Grand Avenue crossing was the scene of 45 crashes that killed seven and injured 27. The Federal Railroad Administration’s 2020 Accident Prediction Report marked the Grand Avenue crossing the sixth dangerous out of just under 8,000 crossings in the state of Illinois.

Other than require Metra trains to move slower through the troubled crossing, not much else has been done to protect motorists.

Why? Why is it OK for towns, villages, and states to react slowly to something that is dangerous? The Grand Avenue crossing has killed seven people, so why wasn’t something done after the first fatality? Why wasn’t something done after the first accident?

A shortage of funds is not an excuse, not when you are talking about human lives. If you cannot come up with the money, then you close the crossing until you can come up with the money. The rail line has been there for quite some time, before suburban sprawl hit the Chicagoland area. I understand the reason engineers did not perceive a 10° angle a problem in the very beginning. However, we are now far from the beginning, and Elmwood Park was introduced to traffic problems a long, long time ago.

It seems like we are finally coming up to the expiration date. Elmwood Park has plans of building an underpass at the cost of $100 million. I’m guessing the price tag would have been lower if something was done 10 years ago, and maybe it would not have cost a life or two.

Instead, motorists have lived with the fear at the Grand Avenue crossing, and some of them have even poked the bear.

Categories: C&S, Freight, Passenger, Rail News, Railroad News, Safety/Training
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