Reports of issues at Chicago area rail crossings have been in the spotlight lately. A malfunctioning railroad gate could present a serious safety hazard, so we thought it was a good time to review how you can report these issues and help keep rail crossings safe.
While the onus is on Metra and the region’s other rail operators to maintain safety at crossings and along the railroad right-of-way, you can definitely help by reporting any problems you see. If you witness a gate remaining down, or worse, failing to activate when a train passes through, report it immediately by calling 911. The 911 operations center then contacts the local police and the responsible railroad to report the issue.
If there are no injuries or imminent danger, such as when a vehicle is stuck on the tracks, it’s best to report a problem directly to the railroad. By law, every crossing has a blue sign affixed to it with a phone number and a unique DOT reference number that identifies the crossing location.
We know that it isn’t always possible, but stopping near the crossing, looking for the blue sign and using the phone number posted on it saves time because it puts you in direct contact with the dispatchers responsible for controlling rail traffic in that area. The dispatchers will immediately advise all trains to slow or stop before entering the affected crossing and will dispatch a signal maintainer to fix the problem.
It’s also a good idea to follow up the call to the railroad with a call to 911 to make the same report. This ensures that the local police department is also aware of a potential public safety issue. And please, don’t tweet about it or post it on Facebook, Instagram, etc. before you make the call. Even if you direct a tweet to the railroad or public safety agency, you’re delaying notification to the people who need to respond to the issue. A phone call is best.
In most cases, a rail crossing failure results in the gates being down with no train in sight. Gates failing in the down position is actually a safety design. Other types of crossing issues, such as the failure of a gate to activate for a train, are rare but should definitely be reported to 911 immediately.
Railroad gates are connected to an electric circuit that feeds information to it regarding the location of trains on the line. If anything disrupts that circuit, be it an actual train or damage to the circuit, the gates are designed to go down to block access to a crossing.
According to statistics compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration, 94 percent of train-vehicle collisions are the result of the driver disregarding the warning devices at crossings and are completely preventable. So please, never attempt to beat a train at a crossing, always comply with the crossing warning devices and wait for the gates to completely return to an upright position before driving through a crossing. Never drive around lowered gates unless directed to do so by a uniformed police officer or member of the train crew.
There are 566 grade crossings in the Metra system and they operate without problems hundreds of times a day and hundreds of thousands times a year. But one failure is one too many. So please, make the call if you see what you think is a gate malfunction.