Buffalo Grove officials say bridge collapse very unlikely
A railroad bridge on Golf Road on July 26 near Glenview. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 3, 2012 1:01PM
“One-in-a-million” is too generous to describe the odds of dying in a train derailment caused by a bridge collapse — which begins to explain why commuters in the northwest suburbs appear unconcerned that they could be next.
Conversely, local emergency officials said they have long been ready to respond to such a disaster, which, from their perspective, is both a rarity and an inevitability.
Both the public and public leaders have sought more information about the status of local railroad bridges since July 4, when the Union Pacific track over Shermer Road in Glenview buckled under the weight of a coal-hauling freight train. Burton and Zorine Lindner died when the debris fell on their car as they drove beneath.
Terry Vavra, Chief of the Buffalo Grove Fire Department, said his organization and its counterparts around the northwest suburbs have all the information they need, in the form of their pre-existing disaster responses.
“We don’t have anything that says, ‘In a train derailment, do X-Y-Z,’ but we definitely have the infrastructure in place to deal with an emergency of that nature,” Vavra said Monday. “Those are all procedures that are set up long ago, and then reviewed on an annual basis.”
While a derailment could happen in nearly any community, drivers and riders in this area need not fear another bridge collapse — there are no tracks passing over streets in Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire or Long Grove. The CN line that carries Metra’s North Central Service also moves freight trains, but has no at-grade crossings in Long Grove or Lincolnshire, and only four in Buffalo Grove: Illinois Route 22, Deerfield Road, Aptakisic Road and Buffalo Grove Road.
Travelers at Metra’s Prairie View and Buffalo Grove stations consistently said they felt safe on the tracks. In particular, Lindenhurst’s Myrna Ronan said Metra’s staff kept her health in mind: She uses a walker, and always receives assistance with climbing up and down the trains’ steps.
“The conductors are very helpful,” she said Monday, getting ready to leave after a visit to her children.
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.
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 tracks.
Railroads are responsible for maintaining their own rail bridges, which federal law requires be inspected twice a year. And they do not have to routinely provide the Federal Railroad Administration with the results of inspections they conduct.
The FRA has said it 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.
But, inevitably, a train will roll off the tracks in the northwest suburbs again; Vavra recalled December of 2008, the last time the BGFD had to put its procedures for that type of emergency into practice. Six railcars skidded to a stop at Buffalo Grove’s border with Long Grove, but no one was hurt — and none of the cars’ hazardous, liquid sulfur contents became dangerous.
“Part of it is doing the research, and finding out that liquid sulfur’s not really liquid, it’s solid,” Vavra said.
From that experience, he said he and his colleagues in other departments will be ready, if the next rarity turns out to be not too far off.
“I wouldn’t say ‘flawlessly,’ I try never to use that, but it definitely worked well,” he said. “Of all the things I worry about, that’s not high on the list.”