What will NTSB consider when it probes tragic Clarendon Hills Metra crash?
Illinois railway crossing collisions rose by 25% last year, with 125 recorded in 2021, the highest tally in six years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
And of those collisions, 22 were fatal, a 22% increase from 2020. About 50% of crashes involved pedestrians, 23% automobiles and 18% pickup trucks on the tracks.
But the most recent rail crossing tragedy in Illinois is an outlier. Christina Lopez, a 72-year-old grandmother of five, was ejected from her seat on a Metra BNSF train after it hit a box truck that had stopped on the tracks May 11 in downtown Clarendon Hills.
"It takes quite a jolt to send a passenger through a window," DePaul University transportation Professor Joseph Schwieterman said.
"Usually, accidents like this cause derailments but do not result in a direct impact between the vehicle and the side of the passenger cars where the windows are located. Usually, that impact is limited to the locomotive or the very front of the train."
In this case, the locomotive was at the rear of the train pushing it, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said at a briefing. At the front was the cab car, with six passengers and an engineer operating the controls.
On impact, the truck spun around and smashed into the right side of the cab car, causing extensive damage. The ejection occurred from a left-side window.
Experts anticipate NTSB investigators will delve into window function as they review the crash and the first Metra passenger death since 2005. Two other riders, plus the engineer and conductor, had minor injuries.
Passenger train window systems must be strong enough to resist shattering in crashes, but also flexible so riders can open them in emergencies, officials said.
When a Metro-North passenger train derailed in New York City in 2013, four riders were killed when they were partly or completely ejected through windows. The NTSB found that standards for holding windows in place during collisions are insufficient, and asked the Federal Railroad Administration to update its regulations.
"Over several decades, FRA has sought to further enhance existing passenger train safety standards and improve occupant protection and accident survivability through research and testing," FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said.
The agency "continues to evaluate all safety aspects of window systems, including window glazing retention and passenger containment during potential accident scenarios, as well as emergency egress, rescue access, and impact resistance requirements."
Meanwhile, some Clarendon Hills residents worry that pavement cutouts for a construction project on both sides of the Prospect Avenue tracks, which jolted passing vehicles, might have disabled the truck.
Resident Linda Finnegan described a close call with a train May 7 when she saw a car stalled on the tracks with a second car just behind. "It was an accident waiting to happen," said Finnegan, who witnessed the fatal crash four days later.
"I heard a loud explosion. The train started wobbling on the tracks. And the whole area was engulfed in black billowing smoke. I thought, 'There's going to be an inferno in a few seconds,'" she recalled.
Clarendon Hills officials had no comment because of the ongoing NTSB investigation.
Illinois Commerce Commission Railroad Safety Specialist Stephen Laffey cautioned that "work zones in general are great examples where motorists can easily be caught unaware and bad things happen because the 'normal' environment they are used to is no longer normal, so it's easy to get confused."
Human error, plus maintenance, rail and signal factors will all be put under a microscope, former Metra director John Plante said. "If there are lessons to be learned, the NTSB will figure them out."
While Lopez's death is horrific, some safety specialists think the toll could have been much worse.
"What I found amazing was that there was no derailment," Plante said.
Northwestern University Public Transportation Professor Ian Savage noted "the risk I was more concerned about was the truck's fuel tanks causing a fire that could engulf the leading train car and pose risks to crew and passengers."
Savage recalled a Metra train striking a concrete truck and flames engulfing one car on May 13, 2011, in Mount Prospect. The truck driver died and 26 passengers were taken to hospitals to be treated.
Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard lives near Clarendon Hills. "My heart goes out to the Lopez family," Dillard said. "This will never leave my mind when I cross that track. It's just incredible that the engineer saw it early and he braked. He did everything he was supposed to do."
Expect delays on York Road in June with lane closures between Supreme Drive and South Thorndale Avenue as the Route 390 and I-490 interchange is built. Work wraps up later this summer.
One more thing
Ravinia patrons will catch a break on Metra fares this summer. The music festival and commuter agency are partnering for a second year to allow free rides on the UP North Line for concertgoers who show paper or e-tickets.