Riverside resident Amy Bilow was slowly trying to navigate her minivan from north to south across the Cowley Road crossing over the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad tracks around 5:20 p.m. on Tuesday evening when the tires of the van got stuck in a rut between mounds of ice, about a third of the way across.
Stuck during a messy, snowy rush hour with her two children, a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old, in a crossing busy with rush-hour commuter trains running in both directions, Bilow was in a panic.
“It was terrifying,” Bilow said. “I couldn’t even rock it back and forth.”
Crossing in the other direction was Adam Rosen, a North Riverside resident cutting through the village on his way home from work. He saw Bilow, who had gotten out of her van, waving her arms and yelling for help.
Once over the tracks, Rosen jumped out of his car and ran to push the van out of the rut.
“I tried pushing, but it wasn’t moving,” Rosen said.
Another man came to help, but no luck. Rosen yelled for Bilow to get her kids out of the van and put them in his car. While she did that Rosen shouted for more help, and two teenage boys ran over.
Rocking the van back and forth, Rosen and the others were finally able to push the van across the crossing. Bilow crossed back to get her kids, taking the 3 year old first. As she reached the other side, less than a minute after getting the van off the tracks, the warning bells sounded and the gates came down to allow a Metra express train to barrel through Riverside.
When the gates went back up, Rosen was standing on the other side with Bilow’s infant and car seat in his arms.
“I believe this belongs to you,” he told Bilow.
As the roar of the train faded in the distance, Bilow got back in her van and drove the kids home, just a few blocks away. After calling her mother, she called the non-emergency line at the Riverside Police Department to let them know what had happened.
“I’m still processing what just happened,” Bilow said a day later. “I’m still shaky. I was up all night.”
That wasn’t the only time a vehicle got hung up at the Cowley crossing this week. At last three others say their vehicles got stuck there too and had to be pushed to safety. And they want to know why the village didn’t realize there was a problem and shut down the crossing.
Elaine Ruggless, of Riverside, tried to cross the tracks at Cowley from the north about 3:30 p.m. on Monday after picking up her two children, age 4 and 6, from school. As she reached the top of the rather steeply pitched approach, her wheels got stuck in about six inches of snow.
She never made it into the crossing and had to be pushed back down the approach by others.
“It was close enough that we would have been in danger,” Ruggless said. “If there were no passersby, I would’ve been stuck.”
Ruggless said Riverside police ought to determine whether the crossings pose a danger to motorists.
“The police should be monitoring it, and if it’s not safe they should be blocking it or putting up a sign saying it’s not a safe route,” Ruggless said. “I’m never going to drive that route again if there’s snow.”
Elaine Cinkay, a Riverside resident, decided on Tuesday evening to avoid the Longcommon Road crossing during rush hour. Her vehicle was behind Rosen’s at the Cowley crossing.
“It was the worst decision of my life,” she said.
Seeing what had just happened to Bilow, Cinkay attempted to reverse on the approach to the crossing but got stuck trying. As another man attempted to push her free, Cinkay’s vehicle ended up sideways, blocking two cars coming over the tracks from the other side.
As Cinkay, who was driving with her 80-year-old father as a passenger, began to panic, her vehicle’s power steering suddenly went out.
“Miraculously, I reversed it,” said Cinkay, allowing the two trapped cars to cross.
A short time later, the crossing gates were down again for another commuter train to pass through.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in this town,” Cinkay said.
Flustered by the experience and worried about her car, which she had to take to a mechanic, she didn’t call police.
According to Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, there were 32 calls to 911 related to the snow, Feb. 1-3. Just one of those calls related to the Cowley crossing, Weitzel said.
That call came from a woman at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, when the rush hour snow had just started falling. She reported her vehicle was stuck at the crossing. A police officer got to the scene at 4:34 p.m., said Weitzel, but the crossing was clear.
Later that day, Weitzel said he received an email about the Cowley crossing.
On both occasions, he notified Riverside’s Public Works Department, which used a front-end loader to clear the mounds of ice from between the tracks, eliminating the ruts, by 6:50 p.m. on Tuesday.
Others, like Bilow, called the department’s non-emergency line after the fact to report incidents at the Cowley crossing, but all of the parts never got pieced together in a way that spelled out “emergency situation,” and the crossing remained open.
Part of the reason, said Weitzel, is that the village isn’t allowed to close railroad crossings unless there is an immediate emergency. Police and public works have the ability to call the BNSF and have them immediately halt train traffic.
Earlier on Tuesday, they did just that.
About 9:20 a.m., a public works employee was clearing snow from a sidewalk near the Delaplaine Road crossing when a wheel of the Bobcat he was driving slipped off the pavement and got stuck.
It was close enough to the tracks, said Public Works Director Edward Bailey, that the employee called the BNSF emergency number. The railroad halted train traffic for about a half hour as the Bobcat was removed from the area.
Had someone called 911 when cars were stuck on the tracks, said Weitzel, police would have immediately notified the railroad.
“If there’s a hazardous situation on the tracks, [Riverside police] are to notify the [BNSF] dispatcher whenever the police department deems it an immediate emergency,” he said.
While there were a couple of calls, Weitzel indicated, there wasn’t enough information to declare an emergency.
“We’re not allowed to block grade crossings, unless we deem it an emergency,” said Weitzel.
But whose responsibility is it to clear the actual crossing?
Riverside Public Works protocol is for crews not to plow or salt the grade crossings themselves, since those are railroad, not village, property. Plows will raise their blades as they reach the crossing and put them down only when they reach the other side.
Village Manager Jessica Frances said the reason for the practice is that running a plow over the crossing could either damage the plow or the tracks. No salt is used, because it can corrode the rails and disrupt the railroad’s switching equipment.
However, in response to an inquiry by the Landmark, the BNSF was clear in its belief that it was the municipality’s duty to remove snow from railroad crossings.
Tom Miller, a spokesman for Metra, forwarded an email from Brian Soyk, manager of suburban service for BNSF, to the Landmark stating that view specifically.
“Removing snow and ice from the crossing is the responsibility of the local municipality,” Soyk wrote to Miller.
Frances said she found that statement puzzling inasmuch as the BNSF sent crews out twice on Wednesday to the Harlem Avenue and Cowley Road crossings to remove snow after being contacted by the village in the aftermath of Tuesday’s events.
What the village needs to do, said Frances, is talk further with BNSF and Metra to make sure situations like Tuesday’s don’t reoccur.
“It’s no excuse, and we need to find out how to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Frances said. “There will be additional dialogue between the village and railroad in the near future.”
She also urged residents to reach out to the village whenever they see dangerous situations, such as the one at the Cowley crossing.
“We want to address it,” Frances said. “Ultimately, if we’re made aware of a problem we will do everything in our power to eliminate or mitigate it.”