March 19, 2013

SPRINGFIELD (March 19)—No one who saw the viral video can ever forget the scene of carnage last November 15 when a Union Pacific freight train struck a parade float as it pulled slowly across a grade crossing in Midland, Tex.

Horrified spectators watched helplessly as four passengers on the float were killed and five seriously injured.

The horror multiplied when onlookers realized that all of the casualties were U.S. servicemen injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. It was the ninth time in as many years that a local organization called Show of Support had honored the veterans with a parade, a hunt, a banquet and a shopping spree for their spouses.

Now the UTU Illinois Legislative Board has asked the General Assembly to make sure that “it can’t happen here.”

House Amendment 002 to House Bill 3255 introduced by State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Des Plaines) allows local law-enforcement authorities to refuse to issue a parade permit if the parade route specified by the sponsoring organization crosses a railroad main line at grade.

The new language reads:

“If a march, assembly, meeting, parade, or gathering on roadways involves the act of crossing or traversing over or upon active railroad tracks, the municipal or county authority or principal law enforcement officer, as part of its permit or permission process, may prohibit any portion of the route that involves the act of crossing or traversing over or upon active railroad tracks.”

The amendment passed out of committee and has been sent to the House floor for a vote.

“We introduced this amendment to make sure that nothing like the Midland disaster ever is repeated in the state of Illinois,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

“No community should ever have to go through what Midland is going through, and no railroad crew should ever have to suffer what that train crew did,” he said.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation report, Union Pacific freight train ZLCAI was en route from Los Angeles to Atlanta with four locomotives and 84 loaded container cars at 62 miles per hour in a 70-mph zone when the 35-year-old engineer and 27-year-old conductor sighted the last unit of the parade, a highway tractor pulling a low-boy trailer carrying people, crossing the tracks ahead.

The engineer sounded the horn and made an emergency brake application, but the train was unable to avoid striking the flatbed trailer that served as the last vehicle in the parade.

An investigation by the Midland Reporter-Telegram later revealed that Show of Support had failed to seek a permit for the 2012 parade, even though a city ordinance requires it and the same organization had sought and received a permit in at least one previous year.

The newspaper disclosed that until 2009 the parade had always crossed the tracks using a grade separation several blocks away from the accident site. The switch to the new route in 2009 was documented in a permit the group applied for and received that year, but in subsequent years the parade continued to follow the 2009 route using the grade crossing but without the sponsor’s seeking or receiving a permit.

Despite the lack of a permit, the newspaper said, the parade was escorted by members of the Midland Police Department.

The NTSB did not comment on UP’s grade-crossing protection devices or the conduct of the train crew. A locomotive camera and microphone documented that the crossing gates and bells operated normally and that the crew sounded the locomotive horn and applied emergency brakes as soon as the occupied crossing became visible.

“They did nothing wrong that day,” Guy said. “The train-crew members were uninjured physically, but they will never be the same after what they witnessed. They observed all the rules and did their job to a T, yet they were helpless.

“I never want to see anything like that happen in Illinois.”