Metra cited as model for preventing train fatalities
Metra technician Matt White was focused on installing equipment high atop the roof of the Van Buren Street Station Feb. 6 when the alarmed face of a conductor in a passing train caught his attention.
He strode from his perch to a nearby railway bridge and saw a young woman "sitting on the edge of the bridge, her feet dangling off the edge."
The 20-something's face had a "totally end-of-the-world kind of look," said White, who slowly approached the woman and struck up a conversation.
From 2017 through now, there have been 104 interventions in potential suicides on commuter railway tracks by Metra employees and police, officials said Thursday at the DuPage Railroad Safety Council's biannual conference.
It's an encouraging sign as the safety council pushes toward a 2026 goal of halving rail trespasser deaths and suicides. Yet, in 2017, 775 people died by suicide or from trespassing on train tracks in the U.S. compared to 740 in 2016. The trend has the attention of the Federal Railroad Administration, whose chief, Ronald Batory, was on hand to announce a summit and report on reducing fatalities coming this fall.
"We have the ability to change behavior -- if we want to -- and we don't do it through regulation," said Batory, a former Hinsdale resident.
Back on the railway bridge, White's mind was going 100 mph. If the fall didn't kill the woman, an adjacent 1,500-volt power line would, he worried.
While keeping his eye on the woman to grab her if she leapt, White kept talking, learning she lived in the South suburbs like him and was worried about low grades and losing a college loan.
You'll get through this, White told her. "Everyone screws up in college -- that's what college is for," he encouraged. "I've been through the same rough situations."
After what seemed like hours, White took the women by the shoulders and coaxed her away from the edge. Emergency responders arrived, took her to hospital, and he started shaking.
"I didn't think about the gravity of the situation until after," said White, a communication maintainer for Metra. "I don't feel special -- I hope it's basically what anyone would do in the same situation."
Metra's success in interventions is something that "can be used nationwide," said safety council Chairman Lanny Wilson, a physician whose teenage daughter, Lauren, was killed at a railway crossing in Hinsdale in 1994. Coincidentally, Batory's daughter attended high school with Lauren and knew her.
National rail suicide fatalities dipped from 275 in 2016 to 240 in 2017.
Meanwhile, U.S. trespassing deaths increased from 465 in 2016 to 535 last year. The casualties range from people posing for pictures on the tracks to individuals under the influence of alcohol to pedestrians wearing headphones.
"Death and disability should not be the punishment for impatience, ignorance or mental illness when near railroad property," Wilson said.
Experts recommend a mix of prevention tactics: installing fencing at hot spots (such as what was done at a dangerous nexus of Union Pacific trains and a playground in Villa Park); deploying drones to monitor isolated tracks; and training railroad employees in suicide prevention, as Metra is doing.
Washoe County in Nevada used technology and shoe leather decreased trespassing fatalities from three to one over two years, Nevada Operation Lifesaver Coordinator Rich Gent told conference participants.
Trained volunteers on foot, pilots in small aircraft, and drones made the difference, Gent said, adding it's key to pinpoint problem areas.
"We know the bar gets out at 3 in the morning ... so we may have a team out there," Gent explained. "We know the fishermen are out at 5 p.m. ... so again we've got eyes on there."
In the Chicago suburbs, a combination of drones and volunteer patrols would work well, he thinks.
Got a comment on preventing railroad deaths? Drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Fire Department tested out a new disaster simulator for jumbo planes Thursday at O'Hare.
- Courtesy of the Chicago Department of Aviation
You should know
The smoke you might have seen coming from O'Hare International Airport Thursday was part of a drill. The Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Fire Department broke the seal on a new disaster simulator for jumbo airplanes. The 70-foot simulator that looks like a jet with seats inside offers scenarios with flames and smoke for firefighters to attack. The idea is to ensure firefighters "are better prepared for handling larger aircraft today, as well as higher passenger volumes forecast for our industry," CDA Commissioner Jamie L. Rhee said in a statement.
The fun continues on the Jane Byrne interchange makeover. Construction on the Van Buren Street bridge over the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago means overnight traffic problems this week. Lanes on the southbound I-90/94 approaching Van Buren Street will be closed gradually starting at 9 p.m. with full, intermittent closures until 5 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
More trails and making Route 14 more pedestrian-friendly are among the recommendations in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's Fox River Corridor Plan. The plan covers Lake and McHenry counties. A presentation to a McHenry County committee is set for 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. To learn more, go to cmap.illinois.gov/programs/lta/fox-river-mchenry-lake.