The image of a car stranded on railroad tracks in the face of an oncoming train is an often used and often parodied trope in movies. But its presence in film is grounded in the fact that it happens in real life, sometimes leading to tragic train accidents. At-grade railroad crossings in Chicago are protected by warning systems, but sometimes they fail to function because of preventable human error.
Two years ago, a Canadian Northern Railway work crew was performing maintenance on the switches on a particular segment of track. During the course of the work, they disabled the warning systems at a nearby intersection. Traffic at the intersection backed up on to the tracks, where a 26-year-old woman sat in her car, driving home after attending a dance competition.
When an Amtrak train came barreling down the track at nearly 80 miles per hour, the woman tried desperately to get out of the way, but it was too late. She died in the train crash, and her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against subsidiaries of Canadian Northern. The parties agreed to settle the case for $6 million.
The Federal Railroad Administration looked into the accident and released its report last month. It found significant errors and violations on the part of the railroad crew performing work on the track that day.
One key supervisor did not have sufficient experience in activating warning systems. After the crew finished their maintenance work they attempted to place the crossing system back on line, but failed to test it. The report indicated that the warning system sounded a mere two seconds before the train hit the woman’s car.
In addition, some of the men on the work crew had gone over the limit of the number of hours they could work in a particular time period. Regulations that cap a person’s working hours are meant to decrease mistakes attributable to fatigue.
Source: Chicago Tribune, “Violations cited in fatal train crash in University Park,” Jon Hilkevitch, March 29, 2012.