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Train Accidents: Real Dangers and How to Avoid Them

On October 9, 2015, two train accidents occurred in different parts of Chicago: one woman in Elmhurst and one woman on the northwest side of Chicago were killed when they were struck by Metra commuter trains. Being a Midwestern state, Illinois appears toward the top of nearly every list that features statistics on states’ total number of freight railroads and miles traveled by train.  This is no surprise as about 1/3 of all U.S. cargo travels through the centrally-located Chicagoland area.  Illinois is the only state in which all seven of the country’s Class I railroads, such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway and the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad, operate.  Additionally, 292,000 commuters travel on Metra lines each day from the suburbs into the city and vice versa. We run an impressive 9,982 miles of track throughout the state but as they say: with great access to the railroad comes great responsibility. ().

Cook County’s 2,548 railroad crossings account for 17.4% of all the crossings in the state.However, a staggering 35% of all collisions involving a train over the last 5 years have taken place here. A majority of these collisions take place at public crossings despite the presence of passive or active warning devices.  Obviously railroad crossings can be dangerous but to whom?  Both pedestrians and drivers face immense risks when it comes to trains and should likewise take precautions to ensure their safety.

Train Accidents Injuries to Pedestrians

Many railroad crossings do not have foot bridges for pedestrian use forcing pedestrians to wait for passing trains just as vehicles do.  Although this requires patience the alternative is dire.  Both pedestrians and bicyclists fall victim to train accidents every year simply because they attempted to beat the train as it came barreling down the tracks.  The temptation to try and beat an oncoming train is distinct when it comes to pedestrians because they can often maneuver around gates and other safety devices with little difficulty.  Nonetheless, the risk is just as substantial as it is for those in vehicle and the injuries sustained are almost always more severe and often deadly.

Another common way pedestrians find themselves injured by trains is when they are walking, fishing, hunting, or biking along grounded railroad tracks or across a railroad trestle.  Not only is this considered trespassing but it is extremely dangerous!  One Indiana teenager knows that all too well after he was clipped by a train while fishing from a railroad trestle in early October.  He found himself trapped on the trestle as a train approached with no choice but to make a 60 foot jump to avoid an impending collision. He is recovering from a compound fracture to his leg and damage to his spleen after being airlifted to the hospital from the scene.

Train Accidents Involving Cars and Drivers

Despite the fact that navigating around the lowered gates at a railroad crossing is illegal and deadly, hurried motorists attempt to beat oncoming trains all the time.  As a matter of fact, the majority of train accidents occur when a train collides with an automobile.  This is in part because it can take the length of 18 football fields to stop a train.  A collision between a train and a car is equal to the force of your car crushing an aluminum can. .

Many different reasons cause a driver to be stuck in a situation where they may cause a train accident that put a driver in danger.  Getting trapped on the tracks between lowered crossing gates can pose a huge hazard to vehicle occupants as there is typically no easy escape route due to traffic both ahead and behind.  Similarly, a vehicle that stalls on the tracks puts the panicked driver in danger of being t-boned directly by the oncoming train and puts others in the area at risk of being injured by debris if a collision should occur.  Even if the conductor sees a vehicle on the tracks up ahead it can take a mile or more for the train to stop once the emergency breaks are applied.

Train Safety Tips

Below are various reminders to help you stay safe and avoid train accidents:

  • While you should never walk down the railroad tracks, be especially careful to avoid the tracks while intoxicated. More than 50% of people who die while walking on the railroad tracks have drugs or alcohol in their system.
  • Remember: the only safe place to cross the railroad tracks is at a designated crosswalk!
  • Do not be a distracted driver!
  • When you do need to cross the tracks, whether on foot or in a vehicle, look both ways and cross swiftly without stopping.
  • If your vehicle becomes stalled or trapped on the tracks when a train is approaching, get out immediately and move away from the tracks. When it is safe to do so, dial 911.
  • Be aware that trains overhang the tracks by about 3 feet so stay back from the tracks when a train is inbound.
  • Do not cross the tracks immediately after a train passes. There could be another train heading the other direction so make sure you can see completely around the train before crossing. .
  • Never try to jump on or off of a moving train.
  • If you do get injured in a train-related accident, seek medical attention.
  • Never race a train to the crossing! Even if you tie, you lose.
R.F. Wittmeyer

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