Motorists still wary of rail bridges despite official assurances
A railroad bridge on Golf Road on July 26 near Glenview. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 3, 2012 12:58PM
GLENVEW — The deadly collapse of the Shermer Road rail bridge in July left Glenview and Northbrook residents shaken, but questions about the level of safety of Glenview’s three railroad bridges have been met with reassurance from Glenview officials.
The results of a Union Pacific investigation — announced July 16 to the public at a community meeting — found structural problems didn’t cause the July 4 rail bridge collapse that killed Glenview couple Burton and Zorine Lindner, and the accident was likely a “freak accident” caused by excessive heat conditions that caused a break underneath the train.
Glenview officials said they felt confident about rail bridge safety following discussions with UP, but expressed some concerns about the availability of past records detailing rail safety.
“We’ve been assured by Union Pacific and the Federal Railroad Administration — who have done inspections in Glenview and Northbrook — that railroad crossings and bridges are safe,” said Village President Kerry Cummings. “I believe there are no present issues with safety, but in the future I’d like to see more transparency with the availability of past safety information.”
Cummings said she was surprised by the lack of readily available information on past safety reports maintained by the FRA — the government entity responsible for railroad safety oversight.
“We’re missing specific details on how railroad safety is regulated,” Cummings said. “If you look for information on an incident that happened back in the 1970’s for example, it’s not readily available. I think the public has high expectations of those types of reports and in the future I’d like to see more transparency on behalf of the FRA.”
Pioneer Press has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to several agencies that deal with railroads asking for information, such as inspection reports, about rail bridges.
The CTA has denied the request on the grounds that it was too burdensome, an exemption allowed under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Pioneer Press asked for information on rail bridges in more than 50 communities that are in the newspaper group’s coverage area. The CTA has asked Pioneer to reduce its request to a more manageable level, which it is doing.
Amtrak and Metra have indicated they are working on the requests. Pioneer Press is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to get information about railroad tracks.
Thomas Petrakis of 113 Cornell Court, Northbrook, said his wife, Nana, had passed beneath the bridge only an hour and a half before it crumbled beneath the weight of the train.
Since learning of her neighbors’ untimely demise, Nana, who was really shaken, said she has been terrified of going near underpasses, especially if trains go over them.
Thomas said the bridge should not have been built with landfill, but on concrete. And he is concerned how it will be rebuilt.
“I’m really fearful. I’m going to go out of my way to go around it,” he added.
The July 4 collapse wasn’t the first incident to take place at the Shermer Road Bridge. A 22-train car derailment in 1974 destroyed the same bridge but with no fatalities, and in 2009 a train derailed at the same location, but the bridge did not collapse.
Glenview officials have not sent any FOIA requests for past reports to the FRA yet, but Cummings said she believed rail bridge and railroad safety information should be much more accessible than it is.
“Our biggest concern right now is what’s in front of us and what we need to be looking at right now, which is the current safety of the public,” Cummings said. “This is such a serious issue and there are so many aspects to look at, but I think we can all be assured that the bridges are safe now.”
Northbrook village officials have not immediately responded to requests for an interivew.
Mark Davis, Union Pacific’s director of corporate relations and media, said the rail company encourages municipalities and residents to bring concerns to its attention. He added that the city typically would be notified if there is a structural issue or improvements are planned.
“We always encourage readers if they notice something out of the ordinary, like a bridge that was struck, to call our railroad dispatch at (888) 877-7267,” Davis said.
Commuters waiting at the Glen of North Glenview Metra station Saturday also expressed concerns about train-related safety.
Ken Prebble, a Chicago resident who takes the Metra to Glenview six days a week for work, said he had no concerns about train safety.
“I have trust in the officials that they’re doing their best to protect the public,” Prebble said. “Since the accident wasn’t cause by structural damage, I have no reason to believe it could happen again.”
Ricky Nelson, another commuter waiting for a late afternoon train Saturday to take him back into the city after a day of visiting with friends at the Naval Air Station Museum in Glenview, said agreed with Prebble and said thoughts about train safety weren’t on his radar.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Nelson said. “I take the train out to Glenview once a week and I always feel safe.”
Railroads are responsible for maintaining their own rail bridges, which federal law requires be inspected twice a year. And they don’t have to routinely provide the Federal Railroad Administration with the results of inspections they conduct.
The FRA has said I would be “counterproductive” to require railroads to do so and that the companies have a “vested interest in maintaining the proper design, inspection, maintenance and repair of their railroad bridges, as they are essential to the flow of commerce and passengers in the United States,” Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael England said.
A full report of the Shermer Road bridge collapse is expected to be filed in nine months after UP and FRA officials complete a full investigation.
Officials said Shermer Road will reopen again in two months.
Staff Writers Tina Sfondeles and Pat Krochmal contributed to this article.