This is the first in a series of GazeboNews stories about train safety in Lake County. This feature focuses on a grieving mother from California who is advocating for improved railroad safety in Highwood and other Chicago-area railroad towns.
By Adrienne Fawcett
The day before she learned her only child had been killed last February, Patricia Church road the Metra for the first time. It was a Monday, and she was in town for her son’s graduation from the Naval Hospital Corps School at the Naval Station Great Lakes. She purchased a ticket to Chicago at the Waukegan station and remembers being amazed–stunned really–that people are expected to walk on the tracks.
“When I bought my ticket, I thought it was odd that you had to cross the tracks to wait for your train. I asked another person on the platform–‘Is this right? So you walk across the tracks?’ We have overpasses and underpasses in California where I’m from. Most people drive cars, but when you take the train you never step on the tracks,” she said.
These thoughts were going through her mind the day before Chase graduated with honors, No. 3 in his class, from the Naval Hospital Corps School in North Chicago. A few days later he was to begin advanced training as a surgical technician at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
But Chase never went to Fort Sam Houston. On Tuesday, Feb. 8, a few hours after his graduation ceremony, Chase was struck and killed by an express Metra train in Highwood. Friends who witnessed the accident said he didn’t see the train coming.
“I cry every day,” said Ms. Church in a telephone interview last week. “He was my only child. It is a nightmare. A nightmare. And I don’t want other parents to have to go through this.”
From her home in Aliso Viejo, Ms. Church has been pushing the City of Highwood and Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks, to make changes at the Highwood station, which is in an odd place: the rear of a parking lot between Walgreens and the Nite ‘N Gale restaurant on Waukegan Avenue in downtown Highwood.
She said her son’s death was caused by inadequate railroad safety measures along with a blind spot due to a curve in the tracks, cars in the parking lot, snow, darkness and the unexpected arrival of a late-running express train. She’s believes he’d be alive today if the crosswalk had pedestrian gates, so she’s advocating for improved safety measures, including:
- pedestrian gates
- fencing to block dangerous crossings and/or divert pedestrians to safer crossings
- new warning lights that are larger and/or higher off the ground and therefore more visible.
Here’s a photo of the crossing, looking east toward the parking lot:
Here’s a photo looking west:
Since Chase’s accident, the railroad has decided to add approximately 2,000 feet of fencing to the tracks in Highwood, which will close off the crosswalk where Chase was killed. There also is talk about improving the warning devices.
But ï»¿pedestrian gates are unlikely.
“There are no other stations in the state that have pedestrian gates at grade crossings, and the U.P. did not want to create a situation where they have to put those everywhere,” said Chip Pew, railroad safety specialist with the Illinois Commerce Commission and coordinator of the state’s Operation Lifesaver railroad advocacy and education group.
Instead of pedestrian gates at the Walgreens crosswalk, Highwood and Union Pacific plan to install fencing on both sides of the tracks from Highwood Avenue to the train station a block north. This will block access to the parking lot crosswalk and will divert pedestrians to the train depot or Highwood Avenue to cross the tracks.
Here’s a photo of the Highwood station. The fence currently ends just before the crosswalk:
Highwood Interim City Manager Ken Marabella said City Council approved the city’s portion of the depot-area fence last month but no installation date has been set because the city is waiting for a final agreement with Union Pacific regarding financing and maintenance.
In addition to the depot-area fencing, Union Pacific will install about 1,500 feet of coated chain link fence from the depot north to Washington Street, where Highwood often hosts festivals. As with the crosswalk in the Walgreens parking lot, people cross the tracks north of the depot throughout the day and into the night year round. Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the materials for that portion of the project have been ordered and the fence, which he said will be “paid for 100% by Union Pacific,” is expected to be constructed by the end of October.
Patti said the fencing provides some solace, although she believes the investment of pedestrian gates is worth the price of a life. Many people who ride the trains, including her son and other recruits, are unfamiliar with the railroad system in the Chicago area, she said.
“I asked the boys (who were with Chase) point blank that if there was a pedestrian crossing gate like they have at street crossings, would it have made a difference? They each said yes, definitely, as then they would have known to stop. They were absolutely adamant that Chase would not be dead,” she said.