Metra: Three trains passed crossing with faulty signals, gates

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CHICAGO — Not one but three Metra trains passed through a grade crossing in Mokena, Ill., where the gates and signals had failed to operate properly, narrowly missing several vehicles, Metra officials acknowledged Wednesday.

The incidents took place Nov. 9 on Metra’s Rock Island line at the 191st Street crossing. A near hit involving one of the trains, No. 506, was widely viewed when a Mokena police officer posted his squad car’s dashcam video of the incident on Facebook in December. The officer swerved his car at the last moment, averting a collision.

But minutes earlier that morning, two other inbound commuter trains had passed through the same crossing when the gates and signals failed. A video taken from the engineer’s cab showed several vehicles crossing the tracks dangerously close to being struck by one of the trains.

The gates worked properly when other trains passed through the crossing that morning, according to Metra.

Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski gave a lengthy and detailed presentation and chronology of events to Metra’s board of directors. Derwinski called the events “disheartening,” while repeating that safety is Metra’s top priority.

The problem was traced to an “intermittent short” in the electrical circuit that controlled the track signal and gates, Derwinski says. An inspection showed that insulation in the switch was “breaking down” causing it to short out.

Inspections are conducted every 30 days but an intermittent failure “would have been impossible to detect,” Derwinski says.

Derwinski says the significance of the events of Nov. 9 were not apparent to Metra’s leadership until later.

“Once we dlved into this, we discovered there was a little bit more to be told of the story — as a matter of fact a lot more to be told of the story — than just the near miss that was captured on the police (dash)cam,” Derwinski says.

The dashcam video, posted just before Christmas, has been viewed more than a million times.

Metra officials say they're reviewing the actions of employees in regards to that day’s events and “will work within its collective bargaining agreements on any corrective or disciplinary steps.”

A Metra spokesman said the agency will not comment further on the employees or actions taken against them.

Metra said it has “since reinforced with all relevant personnel the reporting procedures following a gate activation failure.”

Metra said it reported the gate activation failure with Train 506 to the Federal Railroad
Administration on Nov. 13 and has made the FRA aware of the additional information. The agency said it is cooperating fully with an FRA investigation of the day’s events.

A Metra signal maintainer who had been assigned earlier that morning to investigate a malfunctioning signal along that stretch of tracks was at the crossing at the time of the third incident. Derwinski explained that the trains encountered a signal along the track requiring the engineer to stop at a location where trains don’t usually get a stop signal, about 1.8 miles from the 191st Street crossing.

Derwinski related the incident involving train No. 412 which moved through the crossing prior to No. 506. Although a wayside signal showed red, a cab car signal gave the engineer permission to accelerate and proceed through the crossing. The gates were supposed to activate a minimum of 20 seconds before the train gets to the crossing, but that did not happen, Derwinski says.

Cab car video shows several cars crossing as the train approaches, and the engineer sounding the train’s horn.

The engineer of train No. 412 did not report to a dispatcher that the gates failed to activate, Derwinski says. That incident occurred at 4:25 a.m., he said.

As the next train, No. 414, passed through the crossing, the gates operated properly, Derwinski says. When the next train, No. 416 approached, the gates were down, but as it approached, the gates started to go up. No vehicles entered the crossing.
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