RR Crossing

Pinckneyville Post

By Jeff Smyth


Perry County Sheriff Keith Kellerman confirmed that he will review a video taken by a camera on-board the Canadian National (CN) Railroad locomotive involved in a fatal collision last week.

Kellerman will watch the video April 1, but added the investigation his department is heading into the accident could take several weeks as he awaits a final report from the railroad that includes data from a recorder also equipped on the train.
“We are actively working on an investigation and waiting for the railroad to give us its information,” Kellerman said. “I will get to see the tape on Tuesday.”

The accident occurred around 1:30 p.m. March 24 when a southeast-bound CN freight train struck a pick-up truck driven by Jeremy Nehrkorn, 27, of Pinckneyville. Nehrkorn was traveling northbound on Denny Road just past Tanglefoot Road when he approached the humped crossing marked only by cross bucks and a yield sign.

CN spokesman Patrick Waldron would not say when the company is expected to release the data to the sheriff’s department, or why it could take two weeks or longer to do so. He did confirm that the speed limit for trains traveling that section of the rail occurred is 60 mph.

Like commercial airlines, locomotives are required to carry data recorders which monitor the train’s rate of speed, when brakes are applied, when whistles are blown and more. Unlike the airline industry, which immediately turns over its so-called “black box” to the federal National Transportation and Safety Board for analysis, the railroad maintains control of the recorder and provides its findings to the investigating authorities.

Vickie Moore casts suspicion on the railroad investigating itself. When her son and two of his friends died in a vehicle-train collision in rural Ohio in 1995 also marked only by cross bucks, she had more questions than answers as to what information about the event was recorded. The family had to hire an attorney to get those answers.

“In the case of my son, the black box was missing after one week,” Moore, who along with her husband, Dennis, established Angels on Track, a foundation to promote crossing safety, said. “We had to hire an attorney to request evidence and not rely on just what the railroad gave us.”

Among the foundation’s efforts, one is to promote the installation of enhanced protection such as lights and gates at all crossings. The other is to debunk the stereotype that the driver is always at fault in vehicle-train collisions.

“All the focus is on the driver. That is the way the law is written,” Moore said. “Even when the crossing is dangerous such as a hump or where there is heavy vegetation all the responsibility is still on the driver,” she said. “Instead of pointing the finger at them we should be asking why the driver didn’t stop. Look at the crossing. The railroad has a moral obligation to protect motorists.”

But protection comes at a cost; one initially covered by taxpayers, but sustained by the railroad. Moore believes this long term obligation is a disincentive for railroads to want to upgrade warning devices at crossings.

Each time drivers in Illinois purchase gasoline part of the motor fuel tax – totaling about $3.25 million annually – is diverted to the Grade Crossing Protection Fund (GCPF) administered by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC). That money is used to install warning signals, gates, grade separations, crossing closures and approaches, among other applications.

A gate and warning light system can cost between $180,000-$200,000 plus grade improvements that run from $2,000 to as much as $100,000. GCPF money typically pays for about 85 percent of the project with 10 percent coming from local governing bodies such as county or municipal governments and 5 percent from the railroad.

Perry County Engineer Brian Otten said what is not factored in is the cost of the road work near the crossing which is 100 percent the responsibility of the local governing body. In cash-strapped areas like Perry County, that can become burdensome.

There are 76 crossings in Perry County, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Of those, 27 include only cross bucks/yield signs, 11 have lights, 37 lights and gates and one nothing. Overall, Illinois is second in the nation to Texas in the number of crossings with 7,781 where tracks cross highways and 7,071 on local roads.

The Federal Railroad Administration reports there were 87 crossing collisions in 2012 resulting in 26 deaths.

With $39 million being pumped annually into GCPF, the ICC maintains a running five-year plan for crossing improvements. There are three crossings in Perry County on the current list for gate/light installation and approach improvements including Morning Glory Road in Winkle, $440,000; Maple Street in Tamaroa, $335,000; and  Valier Carpet Road near Tamaroa, $310,000.

While the Denny and Tanglefoot roads crossing is not on the list, an appeal was made in the mid-1990s to have safety devices installed.  At the time, then-road commissioner Randy Farthing and county engineer Roy Smith asked the ICC to review that crossing, the Pick Road crossing and one other. The ICC looked at each but denied the request based on a formula that factors the amount of vehicle and train traffic at the crossing. Accidents, fatal and non-fatal – are also considered.

The ICC determined that the 25 vehicles and eight trains that passed through each crossing daily wasn’t enough to warrant the safety enhancements. In 1999, when a vehicle-train collision took the life of Geraldine Luke, the ICC reconsidered the Pick Road crossing. In 2000, lights and gates were installed.

Otten said fatalities such as these put a “big target” on crossing and he wouldn’t be surprised if the Denny Road is also reconsidered.

“It gets the attention of the ICC,” he said.

Moore is adamant that it shouldn’t have to come to a fatality to wake up people on the needs for all crossings to be protected.

“A yield sign is no protection,” she said. “There is no excuse. Every single crossing should be gated.”


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