River Forest must trust railroads on safety
Some structural elements of the south side of the Chicago Avenue railroad bridge support are heavily rusted.
Updated: September 3, 2012 12:32PM
RIVER FOREST — While River Forest officials plan for the worse, they are confident the rail lines going through the village are safe.
But they’re not the ones conducting any safety inspections. The railroads are.
One of the two rail lines traversing the village north/south is owned by Canadian National Railroad. Though still active, it has not seen any train traffic for about three years.
It was the site of the last derailment of a train headed through the village in November 2005.
The other rail line runs east/west to the south of Lake Street on a raised right-of-way, shared by Metra trains, situated a short block south of Lake Street
Fire Chief Jim Eggert, who’s responsible for the village’s emergency response to event such as a derailment, said an accident like the Glenview derailment is possible, though unlikely.
“Is it possible? Anything’s possible,” he said. “All we can do is train for that specific (incident).”
Public Works Director Phil Cotter said railroad officials have told him many of the bridges in River Forest are “over-engineered.”
“Even though some have a poor appearance, there’s so much steel under there that at this point they’re not in jeopardy of failing,” Cotter said.
One River Forest railroad bridge, over Chicago Avenue west of Park Avenue, appears badly rusted.
Cotter said Canadian National officials have told him the line is active but unused.
Whatever the condition of the rails and bridges, Eggert said, it’s the railroad’s job to ensure track safety.
“I don’t think there’s anything public safety could have done that day (in Glenview).”
Village Administrator Eric Palm said the village has to rely on the railroads to inspect their tracks. And they don’t share any information.
In a 2003 letter to the village that Palm gave Forest Leaves, Canadian National said all their bridges were inspected “on an annual basis.”
“These bridges have been rated and meet requirements for the speed and tonnage that operates on them,” Canadian National general counsel Michael J. Barron, Jr. wrote.
But Barron declined to release any specifics related to those inspections, saying, “These records are proprietary and not shared with the public.”
In the wake of the Glenview tragedy, 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.
However, when it comes to getting railroads to address perceived problems with the state of their bridges and other rights-of-way, municipalities are largely powerless, said Palm, who noted, “We’ve been working with Union Pacific (Railroad).”
“There’s no real control over railroads locally,” Palm said. “It’s all federally governed. We have very little leverage.”
“Certainly, if we thought it was a public safety issue, we’d bring it to their attention and block traffic off.”
“If you bring (problems) to (the railroad’s) attention, it’s up to them whether they do anything,” Palm said. “That’s the extent of a municipality’s power to fix anything, to my knowledge.”
“Our only success in my time here has been with getting three grade crossings improved,” Palm said. The three crossings, north of Chicago Avenue at Keystone Avenue, Forest Avenue, and Augusta Street, where the trains run at ground level, “were horrendous,” he said.
“So we filed a complaint with the Illinois Commerce Commission,” Palm said. It took about six months, but all three crossings were all recently improved.
The village has also been concerned about deteriorating concrete on retaining walls along both the north/south Canadian National tracks and the wide viaducts under the east/west Union Pacific tracks.
Canadian National said it inspects the condition of retaining walls as well, “in accordance with appropriate engineering standards every year.”
In May, Cotter asked Canadian National to clean up debris from fallen concrete from deteriorating sections of retaining wall on both the north and south sides on it’s embankment.
The railroad did so, and in a follow-up thank you e-mail, Cotter inquired about its plans for filling in the voids left by the crumbling concrete.
In a May 22 e-mail to Cotter, Canadian National’s Director of Public Affairs Wesley J. Lujan stated, “I will check with our engineering team in the filling the void, but typically we only take action if the wall has a structural issue or does not meet the standards necessary to support our operations.”
In 2000, under similar circumstances, Union Pacific official Thomas Zapler wrote Cotter, stating, “Our limited funds are needed to keep the railroad safe for our operations, and cannot be used for aesthetic projects.”
Zapler said at the time that he’d look into securing funding, but gave no guarantees.
“We will make the wall safe. We cannot make the wall attractive,” he said.