Seeing the light, but not seeing the train

Seeing the light but not seeing the trainThe news flash came just after 7am that morning of October 25, 1995.  It took the wind out of me.  A school bus was just struck by a train in Fox River Grove, Illinois.  What happened? I pulled my car over and listened for more news.  The news came fast and the more I heard the less I wanted to hear. School kids killed and injured.

My involvement in railroad accident investigations began one year earlier.  On October 25, 1994 a lady was struck by a train in the early morning hour at Poplar Street in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Earlier that year I had joined a newly formed volunteer group of railroad safety advocates called the DuPage Railroad Safety Council.  I volunteered myself to investigate railroad accidents in our area.  It was something that I had never done before but seemed to be intriguing and interesting and I like to think that I am intuitive.

When I went to the accident scene the next morning I had expected to see official investigators. I thought that was standard operating procedure, to go to the scene the next morning at the time of the accident.  To my surprise, I was the only one there.  The commuter station at York Street, about a half mile west, was well lit in the darkness of the early morning hour. At around 6am a train had stopped in the station.  It was difficult to recognize that a train was in the station.  There was just one lit headlight on the lead car, the cab carThat train light blended in with all the other lights at the station. It was still dark at 6am.

Within minutes, I knew there was a recognition problem, but was I crazy.   Surely, others had to be aware of the problem, trains have been around forever.

For almost two years, I wrote to and talked to anyone that I thought had the power to make the lighting systems on locomotives more recognizable.  That included than President Clinton, than FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris, than NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, the CEO’s of the major railroads, and many more.

Today, trains must operate 24 hours a day with a lit triangular lighting pattern. It is required by law.

As I continue to post in the future, you will become aware of the slow glacial speeds that the railroads and the government work to solve safety problems. 

Statistics have shown that the triangular lighting pattern or as I call it the “ditch light effect” have dramatically reduced deaths, injuries, and accidents.  The lights were finally turned on in late 1996.

At Fox River Grove, on October 25, 1995, as it was on October 25, 1994 in Elmhurst, the approaching train had only one lit light.  The non-recognition of the approaching train was a contributing factor in both accidents.