Operation Lifesaver’s Chip Pew says Illinois has an exposure problem.
The state ranks second in the number of railroad crossing and track miles, and boasts the third-largest highway system in the country.
This also means a lot of railroad crossings and a higher probability of vehicle-versus-train crashes.
Harvest season is here and slower, heavier vehicles are hitting the road.
Pew, state coordinator with Illinois Operation Lifesaver, spoke with FarmWeek and RFD Radio to promote his organization’s message with the hope it can save even one life.
Operation Lifesaver started nearly 50 years ago, and at that time, Illinois had 800 crashes and 100 deaths involving trains. During the past decade, the average has been 120 crashes and 25 fatalities.
“Our goal is to get to zero,” said Pew, who has investigated more than 500 train fatalities. “But no matter what we do from an engineering perspective, what we do from an education perspective and even how law enforcement is helping us enforce those laws, there’s always going to be those people that think it should be their right as to whether or not they’re going to try and beat a train.
“And even if it’s a tie with a train, you lose, you’re not going to get another chance.”
Pew noted communities along the High Speed Rail Corridor will soon see train speeds increase from 79 mph to 90 mph, meaning longer warning times for approaching trains. In some cases, trains will activate the crossings without being seen, and drivers might think the crossing is providing them with false information since they can’t see a train.
He also reminds drivers of the blue Emergency Notification System signs at railroad crossings, which lists the crossing number and the phone number for railroad authorities who can warn trains of your situation.
For example, if a farmer is driving a slow-moving vehicle that will take some time to make it across the crossing, the driver can call the number to learn when the next train is due.
“You can use (the sign) proactively in addition to using it to report (incidents),” Pew said.
One surprising statistic is 25% of train-vehicle collisions occur when a vehicle runs into the side of a train, Pew said. He noted trains hang 3 feet over the sides of tracks on both sides.
While the line of sight at many rural crossings is pretty good, Pew cautioned drivers that trains may appear to be traveling slow.
“It can be an optical illusion ... be wary of the train that you see down the tracks thinking that you’re going to have enough time to get across. You’re always better to just play it safe,” Pew said.