As of this month, Illinois is required to have updated signage for emergency situations at railroad crossings. People can call the number on these standardized blue signs to report track obstructions or other safety issues at specific locations. If a crossing gate is malfunctioning, for example, railroad authorities need to know.
Signs with this emergency information have been around since the mid-1970s, says Chip Pew, railroad safety specialist for the Illinois Commerce Commission. But the signs were not standardized, making it difficult for pedestrians and motorists to properly locate them.
The information "might have been on a sticker, wrapped around an appliance ... in many cases it was on a large placard, sometimes on a small sign," Pew said. In response to this lack of uniformity -- not just across Illinois, but across the United States -- the Federal Railroad Administration began the Emergency Notification System (ENS) program in 2011, with the expectation that the blue signs would be fully implemented by Sept. 1, 2017.
To make sure the public is aware of the blue signs and looming deadline, Pew and a team of volunteers have been conducting outreach through a program called Operation Lifesaver, which focuses on railroad safety education.
"People are shocked that [the] information has been there for that long and [they] did not know it, but they find that the blue sign is very visible and that the information it contains is obviously very important," Pew said.
With the added attention to the blue signs, Pew said he hopes people think more about their safety around railroad crossings.
Operation Lifesaver volunteer Gordon Bowe echoes this sentiment. Bowe is a retired Metra conductor who now uses his free time to educate kids, teens and adults about the dangers of rail crossings. During his time as a conductor, Bowe witnessed accidents where motorists or pedestrians did not yield to his oncoming train. He says he would like for people to understand that crossing gates exist for a reason.
"A lot of [people] don't realize that from the first blink of [the crossing] light, the road is closed," explained Bowe. "They think it's, 'Do I have the capability of getting across before I get hit?' "
He said it takes only 20 seconds for a train to reach that crossing after the lights go on.
Illinois ranks second in number of track miles and crossings -- right behind Texas. It's also in the top five states when it comes to train-vehicle accidents.