Suburbs prepare for potential disasters on rail lines, bridges
A car heads west under the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad bridge over Ogden Avenue in La Grange. | Jane Michaels~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 1, 2012 1:31AM
LA GRANGE — With 70,000 commuters a day rolling through the western suburbs on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, the potential exists for accidents and disaster, emergency officials acknowledge.
To prepare for a derailment or the potential for a bridge collapse similar to the July 4 fatal incident near the Glenview-Northbrook border, suburban fire departments conduct disaster drills regularly.
“We train all the time with our Mutual Aid Box Alarm System,” La Grange Fire Chief Bill Bryzgalski said. “There’s a wide scope of what we’re prepared for.”
On Oct. 15, La Grange and surrounding communities conducted a hazardous materials drill on the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad tracks, near Shawmut Avenue, east of La Grange Road. The Cook County Bomb Squad also participated, Bryzgalski said.
Suburban crews prepare for a variety of scenarios, ranging from a simple derailment to one with a hazardous materials spill necessitating an evacuation, a fire or multiple medial emergencies involving passengers.
The Burlington line is used by an average of 143 freight and passenger trains each day, said Amy McBeth, spokeswoman for the Burlington. On the Indiana Harbor Belt tracks east of La Grange Road and running north and south, 2,900 freight cars a day pass through, Bryzgalski said.
“We have a good working relationship with both the Burlington Northern and the IHB,” Bryzgalski said.
The chief noted municipalities were well informed during the NATO summit in May of security measures and changes in train schedules.
Andrianna Peterson, assistant village manager in La Grange, agreed.
“They communicate well with us and have had no problems,” Peterson said. “We know they inspect the bridges twice a year and we’ve not had any issues.”
McBeth said Burlington Northern maintains bridges over Ogden Avenue east of La Grange Road and over the Indiana Harbor Belt tracks northeast of Ogden Avenue. Between Western Springs and Hinsdale, the railroad maintains the bridge over Interstate 294.
“It is in our best interest to fully maintain our infrastructure to keep the railroad running efficiently and safely,” she said.
Although McBeth couldn’t provide the date and findings of the most recent inspection, as well as the age of the three bridges, she said all were found to be structurally sound.
The Federal Railroad Administration can review inspection records at any time on a case-by-case basis, she said.
The Doings and Pioneer Press have 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. The Doings is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to get information about railroad tracks.
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.
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael England said companies have a vested interest in maintaining the bridges. The administration’s website states it be counterproductive to require railroads to do so.
U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-3rd, from Western Springs, said the inspection situation warrants further study.
“It would be great on one hand if we had the federal government inspecting bridges, but that would cost more money over the miles of railroad lines,” Lipinski said. “The railroads certainly have an incentive to keep bridges in good condition. It would be good to look at is this something the federal government should look at.”