CHICAGO (CBS) — It’s Illinois Rail Safety Week, and we’d venture to say not many people are concerned about trains right now.
Metra ridership is down 90%, and people are driving less. State safety experts worry the pandemic could railroad train crossing safety, because we’re all out of practice.
CBS 2 Morning Insider Lauren Victory explains another complication.
An emotional education video from Illinois Operation Lifesaver is 10 years old; a blaring message about stopping for the train, a warning that still bears repeating.
Illinois Commerce Commission rail safety specialist Chip Pew asked to meet at the Metra stop in the Edgebrook neighborhood, where about 90 commuter, Amtrak and freight trains pass through on a normal day.
“You’ve got a lot happening here; 25,000 trains crossing [per year],” he said.
While a collision involving a Metra train and a milk truck made the news at the Edgebrook stop in January, and though videos of close calls and reports of gate malfunctions fill Illinois headlines each year, these days, Pew’s priority is further down the tracks.
“The trespassing problem now is a greater issue than the crossing,” he said.
It might seem obvious to stay out of a train’s path, but more than 200 people have died from track trespassing in Illinois since 2010. Illinois ranks 5th in the U.S. for states with most train track trespassing incidents.
Train and vehicle collisions are trending down in the past 30 years, but pedestrian accidents are holding steady.
Pew said some safety tweaks are simple, such as planting thick-growing thorny bushes alongside the tracks.
Others are more involved.
“Fencing in hot spot areas would be another option,” he said.
Cost is the problem, but not for the reason you might expect.
“The money is already there,” Pew said.
Some of the revenue from motor fuel taxes is used to finance the state’s Grade Crossing Protection Fund, with almost $1 billion used for Illinois railroad safety improvements since 1955.
But there are spending restrictions.
“Say they wanted to build an underpass at this location here. It would not qualify, because it’s not considered as part of the crossing,” Pew said.
Illinois state Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston) has introduced proposed legislation to loosen the reins on how those funds can be used.
The legislation is stuck in committee, but Pew and his team are chugging along, working on partnerships to derail any concerns.
“Who is going to maintain the fence? Who is going to cut the brush?” Pew said.
Gabel said the pandemic truncated the most recent legislative session, but she plans to re-file the bill in January. Gabel said the proposed legislation was inspired by a constituent whose daughter was killed by a train.