Fox River Grove Bus-Train Collision, 7 Killed

National Transportation Library photo (cropped) of Fox River Grove Metra-School Bus crash from the US Department of Transportation.

The Fox River Grove bus/train collision at a level crossing (grade crossing) at Northwest Highway and Algonquin Road [MAP/SAT] killed seven students riding aboard a school bus in Fox River Grove, Illinois on Wednesday morning October 25, 1995 [WEATHER]. The school bus driven by a substitute driver was stopped at a traffic light with the rearmost portion extending onto a portion of the railroad tracks when it was struck by a Metra commuter train traveling about 60 mph eastbound toward Chicago.

The accident involved a signalled rail crossing located very near a highway intersection which was regulated by traffic signals, and the devices were connected and operations were supposed to be carefully timed and coordinated. Such locations are known as “interconnected crossings” within the industries. Highway and railroad officials had each received numerous complaints from the public about the insufficient timing of the warnings provided by the signals in the year prior to the accident, and citizens later told of situations with vehicles unable to clear the tracks in a timely manner.

National Transportation Library photo (original) of Fox River Grove Metra-School Bus crash from the US Department of Transportation.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found that, while the bus driver was not aware of the fact that a portion of the bus was on the tracks as she should have been, the timing of signals was so insufficient that, even if she had identified the hazard as the train approached, she would have had to proceed against a red traffic signal into the highway intersection to have moved out of the train’s path.
Legislation and re-engineering of interconnected crossings across the state of Illinois combined with greater awareness elsewhere resulted in efforts to help to prevent similar accidents from recurring. Informational decals were also added to Illinois school buses advising drivers of the length of each bus, since the substitute school bus driver was apparently unaware of the exact length of the bus she was driving. Other states have also embraced that and related aspects and incorporated them into their school bus driver training curriculum.

As of December 2007, the Fox River Grove accident stands as the worst accident involving a Metra train in its history, and one of the worst grade crossing accidents in U.S. history. At the accident site, the improved signaling system installed after the accident now protects the passing trains and motor vehicle traffic. Nearby, a small memorial to the seven high school students killed stands in remembrance of a October morning in the small community when a ride aboard a school bus, normally the safest mode of transportation to school, ended in a tragedy.

On October 25, 1995, at 7:10 a.m. CDT, Metra train number 624, traveling approximately 50 mph (80 km/h) at the time of impact, collided with the back of a school bus carrying students to Cary-Grove High School at the intersection of Algonquin Road, Northwest Highway (U.S. Highway 14) and a double-tracked mainline belonging to the Union Pacific Railroad. The impact separated the body of the bus from the chassis of the bus and catapulted the wreckage into the intersection. Five students were instantly killed and two later died from their injuries. Another 21 were injured, some critically. Most victims suffered blunt trauma and head injuries. The most seriously injured suffered skull fractures, lacerations and internal injuries.

All times are approximate, but are given in the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report as the best approximation of when the events occurred as a result of their investigation. All times are given in Central Daylight Time.
6:15 AM: Bus scheduled to leave bus garage.
6:30 AM: Substitute bus driver arrives to perform pretrip inspection.
6:35 AM: School bus leaves garage.
6:55 AM: First passengers are picked up on bus route.
7:00 AM: Metra express commuter train 624 leaves the Crystal Lake station, bound for downtown Chicago.
32 seconds before impact: The crossing processor detects the presence of the Metra train. The thumbwheel on the device calculates the speed of the train, which is at this point 66 mph (106 km/h). The train is 3,080 feet (939 meters) from the center of the crossing. The device determines that it can safely wait eight seconds to notify the highway system of the train’s approach.
24 seconds before impact: Rail system notifies the highway system of the train’s approach. The train is 2,400 feet (731 meters) from the crossing, and its speed is unchanged.
23 seconds before impact: Preemption cycle for the traffic signal begins; lights on U.S. 14 prepare to change to red, but pedestrian traffic must be given time to clear the intersection. The engineer first sees the school bus crossing the south (outbound) track at “a very slow speed.” The train is now 2,300 feet (701 meters) from the crossing.
12 seconds before impact: The pedestrian clearing phase ends. The train is 1,200 feet (365 meters) from the crossing. Its speed has increased to 69 mph (111 km/h), just short of the speed limit on that section of track.
7.5 seconds before impact: Signals on U.S. 14 turn yellow.
6.0 seconds before impact: Signals on U.S. 14 turn red. The train is now 600 feet (182 meters) from the crossing, traveling 67 mph (108 km/h).
5.0 seconds before impact: The engineer, realizing the bus has not moved from the track, activates the emergency brakes. The train is 500 feet (152 meters) from the crossing, and its speed has decreased to 60 mph (96 km/h).
7:10 AM:Train impacts school bus.
7:13 AM: First 911 calls are reported to the Cary Police Department. The Fox River Grove police chief had witnessed the collision and immediately radioed for assistance.
7:18 AM: First responders from Fox River Grove arrive on scene with an ambulance, a fire truck, and four EMTs.
7:27 AM: Local hospital activates disaster plan, and sends two doctors to the scene.

Causes of the Fox River Grove Train-Bus Collision
Failure of judgment
The initial cause of the accident was the failure of the bus driver, Patricia Catencamp, to properly judge the distance between the railroad tracks and the vehicle stopped at a traffic signal across the tracks. The failure of judgment meant that around 3 inches (7.6 cm) of the back end of the bus hung over the nearest rail. The body of the Metra train extended three feet (one meter) past the rail. All of the injuries were sustained during this initial impact.

However, the crossing was of inherently dangerous design in that a long vehicle could be trapped partly on the crossing while held by a red light at the intersection. If the driver had realized the danger, she would still have been forced to pull through a red light to clear the track when the warning bells sounded.

View Larger Map of the latest geographic information from Google Maps near the
Fox River Grove Metra-School Bus Accident scene.

Highway Reconstruction
As with most transportation accidents, there were other conditions present that created an environment in which this type of accident could occur. These causes take root in the history of the road, the railroad, and the crossing.

Prior to the early 1990s, the Northwest Highway ran as a two-lane road (one lane in each direction) parallel to the former Chicago & North Western rail line (Union Pacific Railroad after April 1995). The distance between the road and the railroad is relatively constant in the state—roughly 60 feet (18.2 meters), assuming a two-lane road and impediment-free alignment. This distance was more than enough to hold a 40-foot (12.2 meter) bus.

When the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) reconstructed the highway to encourage development in the area and limit congestion, three lanes were added to the road to create a four-lane highway with turn lanes at the intersection. To limit the impact of the road expansion to businesses on the northern side of the highway, IDOT reduced the distance between the road and the railroad from 60 feet to around 30 feet (9.1 meters). They also erected a modernized traffic signal to ensure traffic cleared the crossing in front of an approaching train. These actions increased the chances of a train impacting a school bus, but were not leading causes.

Crossing Design
The type of crossing where the accident occurred is known as an interconnected crossing because of the need to link railway signals with roadway signals to ensure safe passage. On this particular route, bus drivers on Algonquin Road had been known to cross the tracks to stop at the line at Northwest Highway, leaving them vulnerable to a passing train. In addition, magnetic sensors were only present on the north side of the railroad tracks. Buses, trucks and other large vehicles were forced to pull through the railroad crossing in order to activate the signals at the intersection.

Timing Miscommunication
According to tests conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, the warning lights on the railroad crossing activated 20 seconds before the arrival of the Metra train. However, the traffic light clearing the rail intersection only allowed cars to clear 18 seconds after the railway signals activated, giving vehicles only 2 to 6 seconds to clear the tracks. Roadway signal timing was under the jurisdiction of IDOT, while railway timing was under the jurisdiction of Union Pacific. No communication took place between both parties with regards to interconnected signal timing. It was reported that the road signals had originally given a safe margin, but had been modified some months previously to allow a pedestrian crossing cycle, overlooking the possible consequences at the railroad crossing.

In addition, the thumbwheel setting on the crossing processor was reduced to 25 seconds from 30 seconds two weeks before the accident. Union Pacific officials stated that the new value was still above the minimum constant warning time of 20 seconds.

NTSB Recommendations
The National Transportation Safety Board issued 29 distinct recommendations to 17 distinct parties in the aftermath of the accident. These recommendations are summarized as follows:

To the U.S. Secretary of Transportation: Develop a safety inspection program for railroad crossings that involve other public entities (schools and other state departments). Notify, in cooperation with AASHTO, other agencies about the importance of exchanging information about railroad/highway crossings. Develop a common glossary of railroad/highway crossing terms and distribute to railroad and public entities. Develop a training program specifically regarding interconnected crossings. Require recording devices on all interconnected crossings in the future, and require their usage when both railroad and joint maintenance is done on the crossing. Upgrade existing recording devices to fulfill the previous condition.

To the Federal Highway Administration: Develop a way to visually show on pavement where a train and/or its cargo may be to assist drivers in determining their safe distance from the crossing. Develop, with the cooperation of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Operation Lifesaver, educational materials to inform motorists of how a train and/or its cargo can occupy a crossing. Review the national Highway-Rail Crossing inventory with the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure that it meets the needs of highway users as well.

To the Federal Railroad Administration: Update the national Highway-Rail Crossing inventory. Include, at a minimum, grade crossings having pre-emptive or interconnected signals.

To the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Determine what effect sound attenuation materials in buses have on the ability of the bus driver to discern both internal and external audible warnings.

To the Illinois Department of Transportation: Review all interconnected crossings in Illinois, and ensure that vehicles at all of these crossings have enough space or time to clear the crossing when a train approaches. Train subcontractors to ensure they have proper knowledge of all working interconnected systems.

To the Transportation Joint School District 47/155: Develop a program to identify possible hazards on all bus routes. Review the information with both regular and substitute bus drivers regularly.

To the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services: Advise their members of the accident and its circumstances. Develop programs for the identification of hazards on bus routes. Develop guidelines for the appropriate placement of radios on school buses. When establishing bus routes, consider unusual operating characteristics or grade crossing accident histories. Advise members to disable radio speakers located next to drivers’ heads.

In addition, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, National Association of County Engineers, American Public Works Association, Institute of Transportation Engineers, Association of American Railroads, American Short Line Railroad Association and American Public Transit Association were all advised to notify their members of the circumstances of the accident, and distribute information on the importance of exchanging information about railroad/highway grade crossings.

In the state of Illinois alone, 188 other interconnected crossings were inspected for hazardous conditions. Of these, 24 had similar problems, and were repaired.