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By Walter Weart
For freight and passenger railroads, making the safety grade at crossings requires a little technology, a lot of partnering, more education and more closures. In the Chicago metropolitan area, railroads and a host of partners are working in a big way to improve crossing safety (see "Grade crossing safety: Freight and passenger railroads take a multi-pronged approach"). The $3.2 billion Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program, which started in 2003, includes crossing upgrades, grade separations (25 in all) and closures.
Two recently completed projects include the $60 million Belmont Road grade separation in Downers Grove, Ill., which eliminated an intersection between the four-lane road and three BNSF Railway Co. tracks used by 150 Amtrak, Metra and BNSF trains daily; and the $165 million 115th & Torrence rail bridge replacement grade separation of the intersection of 130th Street and Torrence Avenue, says Jeff Sriver, CREATE project manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Planning for the Belmont Road project began more than a decade ago and involved collaboration among an array of entities, including BNSF, Metra, the village of Downers Grove, DuPage County, the Illinois Commerce Commission, Illinois Department of Transportation and Federal Transit Administration.
The goal of the 130th and Torrence grade separation project is to eliminate at-grade crossings on two Norfolk Southern Railway mainlines by lowering the profile of 130th Street and Torrence Avenue to fit under two new bridges that will carry the tracks and also be used by the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad. In addition, an existing bridge carrying two Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District/South Shore Line commuter-rail tracks over the NS tracks and Torrence Avenue will be rebuilt on a new alignment immediately south of the current structure.
The 394-foot-long bridge is the largest truss bridge ever built off site and moved into place fully assembled, CREATE officials say. The project is scheduled for an April 2015 completion.
"Two other notable crossing projects involved the Ashland and Damon crossing, which experiences over 50,000 vehicles a day, and a BNSF crossing on Blue Island Avenue, which used a tub-type crossing," says CREATE Coordinating Planner Joe Alonzo.
Speaking of BNSF: The Class I has about 50 tub crossings in the Chicago area, 10 of which were installed in 2012, a BNSF spokesperson says. BNSF officials believe tub crossings work well in areas where there is high vehicular traffic and low train speeds. Unlike conventional concrete panels that fit on top of ties, tub crossings don’t sit on ties. The rails are attached directly to the precast concrete modules, which eliminate the use of ties and ballast. CREATE officials note that there's been less of a need for maintenance with the tub crossings currently place.
CREATE officials also plan to use variable message signs to alert drivers "when a particular Belt Railway crossing is blocked, which occurs frequently and creates significant delays," says Chicago DOT Deputy Director David Zavattero. The signs are designed to alert drivers that gates are down and for how long. The crossing, which is monitored on a Belt Railway Co. of Chicago line, is located at 55th Street, just west of 55th and Central, at the northwest corner of Midway Airport.
The signs — which ultimately could be tied into the railroad's crossing control system to provide additional information — will be placed along the Stevenson Expressway and Cicero Avenue during the next 18 months. If they prove to be successful, the signs could be installed in other locations, Zavattero says.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer. Email comments or questions to email@example.com.