October 25, 1995 was a horrible day in the little community of Fox River Grove, Illinois. At just after 7am a Metra express commuter train heading east into Chicago carrying rush hour commuters and running on a Union Pacific line track struck the back end of a yellow school bus carrying sleepy eyed high schoolers. The bus had stopped at a red light just after crossing the tracks. The area from the light to the tracks was less than the length of the school bus. There were a seven kids killed and many more injured that morning. The train, traveling at about 69 MPH had little time to stop when the engineer realized a collision was unavoidable. He started the stopping process at about 10 seconds before impact.
Within about 48 hours after the accident and in response to the about 20 second signal activation time John Goglia of the NTSB stated “If it takes 18 seconds for the light to turn green and the train is going to cross in 20, I’m not comfortable.” Inspectors immediately fanned out and started checking signal activation times throughout Illinois. Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis argued that the traffic warning system was set to kick in at 23 seconds away, not 20 seconds, and stated as noted in a Chicago Sun-Times article “Either way, there’s no problem with the signaling from the railroad’s point of view. Our signaling is doing what it’s required to do.” He also noted that 20 seconds met the federal standard.
The school bus driver that day, although an experienced bus driver, was a substitute on that route and driving the route for the first time. Experienced bus drivers on that route would wait before crossing the tracks for a green light at Algonquin and Northwest Highway. They knew of the distance problem between the stopping line at the light and the railroad tracks. Sadly, no one had told the subsitute to wait on the other side of the tracks for the light to turn to green before proceeding, Lack of communication and proper instructions was noted by the NTSB as a contributing factor.Eventually, the case was settled. As I remember it, the various parties involved in the accident agreed to pay a $25 million settlement. As with most settlements, none of the parties had to admit fault.
Trials are emotionally charged and often time consuming events that touch on details that are almost unbearable. For parents, relatives and friends to relive such a horrific event would have been far too painful. Personally though, I wish it would have gone to trial. Just maybe the long term impact of a public trial would have brought about positive changes in rail safety. There is no question that 20 seconds of signal activation time is just not enough time at many crossings. We know those crossings by their characteristics and their accident history.What is almost uncanny is how similar the Fox River Grove school bus accident on October 25, 1995 was to that of the November 15, 2012 Midland train collision with a parade float carrying wounded war veterans and their wives. The Show of Support parade float was struck by a freight train traveling at about 62MPH on the UP line. Four wounded veterans were killed and many veterans and their wives were injured.
There are common contributing factors when examining the two accidents. Both had busy streets running parallel to the tracks. Both had situations were communications seemed to be lacking with the drivers of the vehicles as to when to cross railroad tracks. Both had the UP following minimum federal guidelines regarding 20 second signal activation timing which seemed too short by the NTSB when investigating the Fox River Grove accident in 1995. Both had trains traveling at speeds in excess of 60 mph when approaching the crossing and had little time to stop. Both crossings that had a history of being accident prone.
My fear, is that we will do little to improve rail crossing safety. The lawsuit will be settled, no one will admit fault, and at some point in time, as it so often does, this tragic lesson in history will be repeated. How sad!