Riverside officials on Thursday said they would proactively monitor railroad crossings during snow events and close streets, if necessary, in order to prevent motorists getting stuck on or near the railroad tracks.
The action came in response to resident complaints following the Feb. 1 blizzard and a small snowfall during the afternoon rush hour on Feb. 3 that made the Cowley Road grade crossing particularly hazardous to cross.
Amy Bilow, a mother of two whose plight was profiled in the Landmark earlier this month, expressed dissatisfaction Thursday to members of the Riverside Village Board regarding what she felt was an inadequate response to her calls for action.
Bilow was driving with her two small children in a minivan over the Cowley Road crossing at about 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 3 when the van’s tires got stuck in a rut between two mounds of ice along the tracks.
Two other motorists and a pair a teenagers who happened to witness what was happening were able to push Bilow’s van clear of the tracks less than a minute before a Metra express train cruised past the scene.
Bilow called the police non-emergency line and said she talked to a dispatcher who said police had received other calls about the Cowley crossing. Bilow also told her story on social media and found others who said they had trouble at the Cowley crossing and had called police.
Yet, police officially logged just two calls about the crossing, said Police Chief Thomas Weitzel. While others may have called to report a problem, they may have called the main village offices, said Weitzel.
“I find it disturbing that so many people claim to have called and only one [other] call was logged,” said Bilow to village board members at their regular meeting on Thursday.
Riverside Village President Ben Sells moved to reassure Bilow that the village took the incident seriously, and that the village was acting to prevent future incidents like the one on Feb. 3.
“What happened to you struck a serious nerve in our village,” said Sells, “and we’re going to see to it that it doesn’t happen again.”
Weitzel outlined what he called a “new written directive” to his officers regarding monitoring all rail crossings in the village during and after snow storms.
The department’s prior protocol was to assign a police officer to sit and observe crossings for a time to see if vehicles were having trouble getting over the tracks. Now supervising sergeants will have, as part of their regular duties, to actively monitor the crossings to determine whether a hazard exists.
If a sergeant determines there’s a problem, he will have the authority to close the street to prevent vehicles from using the rail crossing.
Weitzel said Riverside police also now have a suburban contact for the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad police, who will be able to assist Riverside block roads if a hazard is declared.
“We have a much clearer protocol, we’ve changed it to [empower] supervisors and we’ll be proactive and not waiting for phone calls,” Weitzel said. “The sergeants will be assigned to check the railroads at an inch or inch and a half [of snow] or when we expect heavy ice.”
Public Works Director Edward Bailey, whose employees cleared the Cowley crossing of snow build up later on the evening of Feb. 3, apologized for the slow response and promised a quicker response in the future.
“Certainly, we’re going to be a lot more conservative,” said Bailey. “We have not been in the past, but we have had this issue called to our attention.”
Bailey said that when it snows public works employees will now monitor railroad crossings every two hours throughout the day, and every half hour during rush hours. For the evening rush, that would be between 3 and 6 p.m., he said.
“Combined with the police department, we should be able to have good oversight over all of the crossings,” said Bailey, “and we’ll either close the streets or direct equipment to the intersections.”