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Thursday, June 21, 2018 12:18 am

Don’t fence me in

Safe or silly, sidewalks are getting gates

There is no shortage of gates and lights at North Grand Avenue and Sixth Street. .
Photo by Bruce Rushton

 

Forget, for a moment, the deeper mysteries of life, the sound of one hand clapping and why it’s still legal to traffick in bump stocks. For the moment, at least, I’m more interested in intersections.

The intersection of North Grand Avenue and Sixth Street, to be precise.

When I moved to the North End nearly a year ago, I was confused by many things, not the least of which were two stoplights on Sixth Street at North Grand Avenue. One is at the intersection itself, the other is a wee bit before motorists reach the intersection, just on the other side of Union Pacific railroad tracks.

It seems obvious that the light at the railroad tracks is aimed at preventing folks who probably shouldn’t be driving in the first place from stopping on tracks, which can prove a bummer. Sgt. Chris Rhodes, a perfect name for someone assigned to the Springfield Police Department’s traffic division, says it’s a matter of safety. Some motorists aren’t quite sure where their behinds end, or begin, and so the light at the tracks prevents cars from squeezing over to the other side of the tracks and putting trunks or trailers in harm’s way while waiting for the light at North Grand to turn green. Safety, after all, is paramount, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission, which promotes a program aimed at convincing people that trains can be dangerous.

“By staying out of the path of oncoming trains, we will all live longer and more productive lives,” the commission observes on its website.

Plenty of folks get hit by trains each year, according to statistics posted on the ICC’s website. The guy in charge of the commission’s safety program didn’t respond to an email, and his voice mailbox was full, but according to the internet, 25 people died in Illinois last year in 109 collisions with trains, and 20 of them were pedestrians. An equal amount of folks on foot were injured after being hit by trains, and the website has no information on the consequences of a half-dozen incidents involving trains and pedestrians.

It seems a surprising survival rate, but we should all nonetheless oppose people getting hit by trains. That said, I am puzzled by the recent installation of gates across sidewalks that cross tracks, including those at Sixth and North Grand, which I have had time to study as I wait for aforementioned stoplights to turn green.

With money coming from the feds, gates to block sidewalks are part of a high-speed rail project aimed at increasing train speeds from 25 mph to 40 mph while ending the requirement that trains sound horns as they barrel through the heart of Springfield. The sidewalk gates, just a few feet away from roadside bells that clang and lights that flash when trains approach, are being augmented by fences running parallel to tracks in hopes of keeping people a safe distance from doom.

Fences. Bells. Flashing lights. Unfettered views of tracks. Isn’t that enough to convince pedestrians to cool their heels? Do we also need gates, which look really expensive (then again, it’s federal money we’re talking about) across sidewalks? Apparently so. YouTube is filled with “look-at-this-idiot” videos of pedestrians darting across gateless sidewalks as roadside bells clang and lights flash. To me, at least, they didn’t all seem stupid. Rather, they looked, saw no train coming and so kept going, with nary a scrape or narrow escape.

Of course, some folks are stupid, which is hard to fix, and so I’m not sure that these gates will help, given that anyone, particularly children, with the ability to duck a bit can easily go under gates installed across sidewalks. There always will be, I suspect, folks who text as they walk, looking down with earphones blasting, oblivious to everything around them, including trains, and a few such people have met their makers at railroad crossings in recent years, according to media reports. This will be less of a threat in Springfield, where such folks will get ka-thunked by sidewalk gates before they can meet Casey Jones.

End of day, if gates across sidewalks are the price of silence along the rail corridor that bisects downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, then it seems a reasonable one, especially since the feds are picking up costs. But it still seems weird. And let’s hope it’s safe.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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