September 3, 2002
SPRINGFIELD (Sept. 3)–A Circuit Court judge has issued an order temporarily restraining the Illinois Commerce Commission from holding a hearing to determine whether Norfolk Southern Corp. allowed thick undergrowth to flourish at a highway grade crossing where five persons riding in a car were killed in a collision with a train the driver could not see.
The July 9 crash in Marlow, Ill., about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis, killed Connie Lorance, 39, and her four children. The father of the family received serious injuries but survived.
The Commission isued a citation in July charging that the carrier “has not complied with the mininimum requirements” of an Illinois statute which mandates that railroads eliminate all obstructions likely to obscure approaching trains from the vision of highway users intending to cross the tracks. The statute reads:
“Every railroad shall keep its right-of-way adjacent to its tracks reasonably clear of brush, shrubbery, trees, weeds, crops and all unnecessary permanent obstructions such as unauthorized signs and billboards for a distance of at least 500 feet each way from every grade crossing where such things would materially obscure the view of approaching trains to travelers on the highway.”
The citation summoned Norfolk Southern to appear at an administrative hearing into the circumstances of the accident and the carrier’s management of the crossing in rural Jefferson County on the NS main line connecting St. Louis to Centralia, Mt. Vernon and Louisville, Ky.
But on August 26 the carrier won a temporary restraining order after charging that the Commission’s citation violated NS’s right to due process, including a jury trial, and that the Illinois law on grade-crossing visibility is unconstitutionally vague. The railroad also alleged that the citation was issued on short notice and that the Commission itself failed to act on a 1988 request by Jefferson County that warning signals be installed at the crossing.
The Commission’s Rail Safety Program Administrator,Mike Stead, told “Hot Topics” the temporary restraining order is due to expire September 5.
“At that time the court will decide whether to issue a permanent injunction or to let the hearing take place,” he said.
Stead also disputed the railroad’s charge that the Commission failed to act on the county’s request for warning devices. He said the crossing did not have enough motor-vehicle traffic to meet the state’s minimum threshold for signalization. He also pointed out that the presence or absence of signals does not relieve the railroad of its obligation to maintain visibility for motorists using the crossing.