IL, McLean - Railroad Safety Devices Have Tough Year : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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Title: Railroad Safety Devices Have Tough Year Source: The Pantagraph Bloomington, IL Publication date: 2000-04-30

McLEAN - Malfunctions, vehicle accidents and shutdowns have typified the first year of an experimental "vehicle arresting barrier" at the U.S. 136 railroad crossing here. When working properly, the high-tech system drops steel netting to block both sides of the crossing as trains approach. The nets are designed to "catch" vehicles before they enter the crossing. The experiment, financed by the state Department of Transportation, is tied into the crossing's conventional bells, flashing lights and gates.

The arresting barrier opened in McLean on March 16, 1999. That same day a semi-trailer was hit by a dropping net. The driver may have mistaken the warning lights as a test because of maintenance vehicles near the intersection, said an IDOT official.

But it was the first of a half-dozen accidents, most of which were attributed to driver error. Typically, motorists misjudged the stopping point or tried to make it through the intersection as the gates dropped. A malfunction trapped one semi-trailer between the gates.

False automated trouble calls and malfunctions, in which gates became stuck or dropped when trains weren't approaching, occurred on several occasions, according to IDOT reports. The barrier was taken out of service in December because of freeze-ups on a mechanical switch. That problem also prompted IDOT to mothball the two other systems - near Chenoa and in Hartford near Alton. They are the only three such systems in place in the country.

"We've spent a large amount of money for something that hasn't worked," said McLean Mayor Steve Shaneman of the IDOT-funded project. "If they worked, they'd be wonderful. But nobody trusts them around here, at least those of us who've seen them malfunction.

IDOT has extended the demonstration period through the end of 2000, in part, because of the time needed to correct problems, said Frank Hartl, the agency's high speed rail manager. The switches that control the nets' up-and-down movement have been weather-proofed, he said.

Computer programming changes also have been made to limit what Hartl described as technical anomalies and coordination issues with existing crossing signals.

Testing that would pave the way for the system to become operational again could occur as early as this week.

"We're debugging," Hartl said. "We basically went back to the drawing board ... so we can have a system that functions in a more reliable manner."

IDOT will continue studying reliability, durability, cost and human reaction to all three devices before deciding whether they're worth installing at more crossings.

McLean has had the most incidents of the three, although none have been problem-free.

The prototypes cost about $800,000 each. Full-scale production models would be about $300,000, or twice the cost of a full complement of safety lights and gates, said Jim Conell, executive vice president of Chicago-based Energy Absorption Inc. that developed the system.

Conell emphasized the product is still in the pilot stage, and occasional technical issues and improvements are expected.

"Generally speaking, we're happy with the progress being made," Conell said. "We think we have a great device that provides the best protection for the motoring public.

"We're methodically working through that so these meet the needs of what IDOT wants."

The system at the McLean crossing was taken out of service on July 16, 1999, because of work on U.S. 136. On Sept. 26, 1999, two Western Illinois teen-agers were struck by a train and killed.

The net system is tied to the conventional gates and bells, which authorities suspect had been turned off that day by a Union Pacific maintenance worker. That would have prevented the safety nets from working even if they had been operational, said IDOT officials. The system was put back into operation there on Nov. 16, but shutdown a month later because of the switch problem.

Net arrestor problems Some of the problems in the past year with vehicle arresting barriers in or near McLean, Chenoa and Hartford, all of which are presently inoperable:


March 16, 1999: Opening the day after multi-fatal train crash in Bourbonnais, minor damage repaired after net scrapes top of semi- trailer. Closed for almost two weeks.

May 2: Shuts down for a day for repairs from damage after vehicle strikes retracting net.

May 4: Nets again struck by a vehicle.

June 4: Signals fail, leaving nets on both sides down less than an hour.

June 30: Back of car struck by net after motorist misjudges stopping point.

July 9. Semi-trailer drives past stopping point and is struck by net as driver attempts to back up.

July 14: Semi-trailer trapped between nets following false activation of the system.

July 15: Truck with livestock trailer caught by net. Driver leaves scene before police arrive.

July 15: System shuts down for computer equipment work and for U.S. 136 repairs, which begin Aug. 9.

September: Testing reveals problem with computer equipment. Decision is made to keep gate inoperable until problems are fixed.

Sept. 27: IDOT decides to delay re-opening after a Sept. 26 fatal accident involving two Western Illinois teen-agers.

Nov. 16: Net system activated.

Nov. 26: Semi-trailer hit by net. Trucking company asks IDOT to make presentation on arresting barrier for company drivers.

Dec. 5: Net remains down because of frozen switches that control the up-and-down net movements.

Dec. 16: Nets remain in "down" position because of frozen switches. Decision is made to shut off all three net systems until switch problem is repaired.


March 24, 1999: Opens.

April 28: Pickup truck with trailer tries to beat lights and gets stuck under net on far side.

May 11: Malfunctions, with net staying down; likely associated with lightning strike in area.

Sept. 27: Closes for 18 hours to replace brakes on a tower.

Dec. 16: Shut down while the switch problem is repaired.


May 24, 1999: Opens.

May 25: Net comes down on semi-trailer. Net drops second time when railroad warning system inadvertently triggers it.

June 8: Problem with up-down movement of nets is discovered, but does not impact traffic. System is shut off until computer equipment is added to correct problem.

Sept. 21: Nets reopen.

Oct. 1: Nets shut down due to malfunction of part associated with drive shaft.

Nov. 10: Reopens.

Nov. 17: Nets inoperable because of broken sprocket that pulls up the nets.

Dec. 14: Reopens.

Dec. 16: Shuts down because of aforementioned switch problem.

Source: Illinois Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration.

Publication date: 2000-04-30 ) 2000, YellowBrix, Inc.


-- (, May 01, 2000

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