The “City of New Orleans” was bound from Chicago to New Orleans when it hit the truck around 9:50 p.m. at a crossing 50 miles south of Chicago. More than 100 people were injured, some critically, and several were still missing as of yesterday afternoon.
The crash, the third-deadliest in Amtrak’s 27-year history, is under investigation. The driver of the truck, who had just left a Birmingham Steel mill, says the train track warning lights didn’t go on until after he started to cross the tracks.
NBC reported that investigators were looking at the trip mechanism, where an oncoming train trips the warning system and gives anyone in the crossing 26 seconds to get out. According to NBC, investigators were trying to determine whether the mechanism was working, or whether the truck was so weighed down with steel that it couldn’t clear the tracks in time. For the train, the speed limit on that section of track is 79 mph.
The local police chief said in a press briefing that the gates did not appear to be broken and “are in up or semi-up position.” An official of Illinois Central Railroad, which operates the section of tracks involved, told NBC it was confident “the gates were working perfectly.”
The driver, 58-year-old John R. Stokes of Manteno, IL, walked away from the crash with only minor injuries. “He’s very sad and upset,” said Cy Gura, a safety engineer with the National Transportation Safety Board team at the scene. “He felt he did whatever he thought he could do to clear the train track, but he didn’t do it.”
Stokes had his license suspended earlier this year after Illinois officials learned that he received three speeding tickets in Indiana in less than a year. But he was allowed to drive on a temporary permit during the suspension because he was a first-time offender, took a safety course and paid a fee.
Frank Eagan, a former employee of the Illinois Central Railroad and a nearby homeowner, told the Chicago Tribune he sees truckers “take chances all the time” at the crossing. He said they sometimes drive around the gates at the crossing to beat oncoming trains.
Federal Highway Administrator Kenneth Wykle has ordered a compliance review of Melco Transfer Inc., the trucking company involved in the accident, “to assess the company’s adherence to federal motor carrier safety regulations.” Unconfirmed rumors have suggested the driver may have been in violation of hours-of-service regulations.
Federal regulations require truck drivers to slow down when approaching a railroad grade crossing. Drivers must maintain a rate of speed that will let them stop before reaching the nearest rail of the crossing. FHWA has proposed that truck drivers convicted of rail crossing violations should be disqualified from operating a commercial motor vehicle for a minimum of 60 days for the first conviction, and 120 days for subsequent convictions within a three-year period. Employers who knowingly allow or require drivers to violate rail crossing regulations would be subject to a maximum fine of $10,000. This proposal came after Congress ordered stiffer penalties in the 1995 Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. The proposal was published in the March 2 Federal Register.