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Has train safety been derailed in DeKalb County?

A car crosses the railroad track at the Tenth Street crossing in DeKalb on Saturday afternoon as a stopped Union Pacific train sits idly about 100 yards away. It was at this railroad crossing that a pedestrian, Steve Cutshall, was killed by an oncoming train on March 26, 2007.
Chronicle photo CURTIS CLEGG
A car crosses the railroad track at the Tenth Street crossing in DeKalb on Saturday afternoon as a stopped Union Pacific train sits idly about 100 yards away. It was at this railroad crossing that a pedestrian, Steve Cutshall, was killed by an oncoming train on March 26, 2007. Chronicle photo CURTIS CLEGG

DeKALB - Chip Pew sifted through his overflowing file cabinets Friday, looking for the number of train incidents in DeKalb County. Eight involving pedestrians or vehicles since September 2006. Six of them resulted in a fatality. Pew is the Illinois coordinator of Operation Lifesaver, a program dedicated to raising awareness to the importance of train safety. He believes &#8220accident” is the wrong word to describe the events. &#8220They're not accidents, they are preventable incidents,” he said. &#8220The train's not jumping off the tracks. So if you're not in its way, nothing bad is going to happen.” Illinois has the second-highest number of train collisions in the country and the third-highest number of fatalities, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Last year, there were 122 incidents in the state, 22 of which were fatal, Pew said. DeKalb, one of 104 counties in Illinois, has had 28 train accidents since 1995 - placing it in the top 20 most dangerous counties in the state. The county has just 108 of the 8,368 public railroad crossings in Illinois, according to Operation Lifesaver. &#8220Fifty percent of all incidents are alcohol related,” Pew said. &#8220Because of the fact that (DeKalb has) a university and a lot of places in close proximity to the tracks - like bars - you have a higher probability for something like that to happen.” James Barnes, director of media information for Union Pacific railroad, said his company takes safety seriously. About 80 percent of accidents in DeKalb occurred on the company's tracks, he said. Train accidents can be prevented by abstaining from &#8220risky behavior,” Barnes said, such as walking near tracks with hearing or musical devices on, painting graffiti or just being on or near the tracks when trains are approaching. Movies and advertisements that feature cars outrunning trains create a false impression for the public, Barnes said, and often perpetuate dangerous behavior. About 95 percent of accidents result from dangerous behavior by pedestrians or drivers, and about half occur at crossings with active warning devices like gates, bells and whistles, according to a report from the Department of Transportation. Being on railroad tracks anywhere other than a designated crossing is illegal, and is considered trespassing. Railroad agencies work with local authorities to increase awareness and enforce the laws: Union Pacific, for instance, has an agency dedicated to issuing citations, Barnes said. Local authorities check on complaints reported by railroad companies and residents, DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said. But since the department's jurisdiction is primarily in rural areas, it's rare for officers to have a train-pedestrian accident because those tend to happen in city areas where people cross tracks more frequently, Scott said. Fines are $250 for driving around a lowered gate, $500 for stopping on the tracks and $150 for trespassing on railroad property. &#8220Once they are stopped and cited, many complain about the ‘ridiculous' amount associated with what they did and yet the consequences could be much much greater,” Pew said. &#8220They are running the risk of losing their life.” A major motivating factor for Pew's train safety crusade is the memory of his high school best friend, Ricky. On his way to practice one winter morning in White Bear Lake, Minn., Ricky, 17, lay sprawled across hockey equipment in the bed of a pickup truck because the cab was occupied by his friends. The truck's windows were covered with ice, the radio was blaring music and the crossing the truck was approaching had flashers and bells, but no gates, Pew said. The truck was hit by a train and Ricky was thrown with great force, Pew said. Ricky's two friends walked away, but he was pronounced dead on the scene. &#8220What really got me was how out-of-touch with reality his mother was that he was gone,” Pew said. &#8220She would tell me, ‘Rick's so glad you're here' and I'd say, ‘What do you mean? Ricky's dead.'” Trauma from train accidents can affect a victim's family, friends, the community and train conductors. Railroad companies offer counseling and support for engineers who are driving trains at the time of an accident. &#8220Our train crews are traumatized by these incidents because they can't do anything - they can't stop on a dime,” Barnes said. It can take trains up to a mile to come to a complete stop, according to Operation Lifesaver. Pew encouraged people to respect the size of trains, and refrain from throwing items on the railroad or spending time around the 7,000-plus miles of track in Illinois. &#8220If an average person gets hit by a 12-million pound train, there may not be a second chance,” Pew said. Carrie Frillman can be reached at cfrillman@daily-chronicle.com.

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