Illinois towns fight traffic-snarling trains

| 2/19/2002

As massive freight trains - many more than one mile long - increasingly block railroad crossings and snarl traffic, frustrated police from a handful of towns near Chicago are fighting back, dispatching officers to slap the crews with tickets.

In Melrose Park, cops have written more than 100 tickets in the last year for at least $500 each. Similar stories are told throughout the metropolitan area, as more officials turn to a 1999 state law that permits them to levy fines when freight trains stop on tracks for more than 10 minutes.

Fines range from $200 to $500 if the obstruction is between 10 to 15 minutes. The amount increases for each additional five minutes. After 35 minutes, the fine hits $1,000 and increases by $500 for every five minutes.

Last month in Mundelein, police wrote $12,000 in tickets at a single crossing, one for $2,500 when a Wisconsin Central freight train closed a major intersection for more than 40 minutes during rush-hour, according to a published report. Blue Island collected $100,000 in fines last year.

In recent years, trains with 100 cars or more - many more than 1.5 miles long - are increasingly common. The longer, heavier trains have greater difficulty clearing grade crossings, as they roll to a halt to unload freight or await clearance to cross a competitor's rails, says a Union Pacific spokesperson. And the flurry of railroad mergers and consolidations in recent years has meant more traffic on fewer tracks.

Legislation that would hold railroad executives personally accountable - making chronic delays a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to six months in jail - passed the Senate each of the last three years, but failed in the House. Lawmakers say they are considering whether to try again this session.