1999 Bourbonnais, Illinois, train crash
|Date||March 15, 1999|
|Type of incident||Derailment|
|Cause||Track Circuit (Approach Circuit) failure to detect the Amtrak train immediately.|
The 1999 Bourbonnais, Illinois, train crash was a collision between Amtrak's southbound City of New Orleans passenger train and a semi-trailer truck in the village of Bourbonnais, Illinois, near the city of Kankakee. Most of the train derailed, killing 11 people. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the accident attributed the cause to the truck driver trying to beat the train across a grade crossing. However, the Illinois State Police investigation found track circuit malfunction as the cause. The NTSB's recommendations from the accident included increased enforcement of grade crossing signals, the installation of train event recorders at all new or improved grade crossings, and procedures to provide emergency responders with accurate lists of all crew members and passengers aboard trains. The city of Bourbonnais erected a memorial near the site to commemorate those killed in the accident.
At approximately 9:47 pm Central (local) time on March 15, 1999, Amtrak's City of New Orleans number 59 was operating southbound through Bourbonnais, Illinois on tracks owned by the Illinois Central Railroad. It was pulled by two GE P40DC locomotives, #807 leading and #829 behind it. 207 passengers and 21 crew members were on board at the time of the accident.:2
While operating through Bourbonnais, train 59's engineer observed a semi-trailer truck loaded with steel slowly crossing the tracks at a grade crossing.:3 When the engineer realized the truck was not going to clear the tracks in time, he engaged the train's emergency brake. However, the train was traveling at 79 mph (127 km/h) and was unable to stop in time.:3
Eleven people aboard the train were killed and another 121 were transported to nearby hospitals with serious injuries. The driver of the semi-truck was also injured. The crash also resulted in over US$14 million in damage.:1
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed the cause of the wreck to the truck driver's reaction to the grade crossing signals. Thinking he could beat the train across the tracks, the driver chose to proceed onto the tracks in front of the train. The driver reported that the crossing signal did not activate until his vehicle was "right on top of the track," but he also stated that he did not want to brake quickly to avoid a shifting load that could hit the back of the truck's cab. Witnesses stated that the gates came down after the truck had entered the grade crossing. One witness stated that the gate clipped the truck's trailer and that part of the gate may have broken off as a result. The accident's fatalities were found in the third car from the engines, sleeper car 32035, due to warping of the coach, a piece of running rail piercing it, and fire damage to the coach.
As a result of the accident, the NTSB made several recommendations:
- To the highway maintainers:
- Review the effectiveness of current railroad grade crossing signals and the use of traffic division islands in deterring motorists from trying to drive around crossing gates.
- To the United States Secretary of Transportation:
- Provide further grants and incentives to increase enforcement of grade crossing signals.
- To the United States Federal Railroad Administration:
- Require the installation of event recorders to monitor gate position at new or improved grade crossings.
- To the railroads:
- Initiate procedures to get accurate passenger and crew lists to emergency responders.
- Implement improved crew accountability procedures on reserved passenger trains.
- Install event recorders on all new or improved grade crossings.
Local civil and criminal investigations
The accident was also investigated by Illinois state and local agencies. The truck driver, John R. Stokes, had been convicted of numerous traffic violations in the past, and his trucking company, Melco, had been cited for safety violations. Although the NTSB's investigation placed the fault of the collision on Stokes and his failure to yield at the grade crossing, the Illinois State Police concluded that the train detection system had failed to detect the fast-moving (79 mph) Amtrak train at the beginning of the approach circuit and turn on the flashing lights and gates for the federally required 20 seconds. A witness saw the late activation and the gates coming down just as the front of the locomotive reached the crossing. That conclusion was confirmed by the chief engineer for the company that manufactured the track detection equipment, Harmon Industries.
The Illinois attorney general's reviewed the case for criminal charges, but faced conflicting agency conclusions as to the cause of the wreck. Ultimately it was determined that the evidence would be insufficient to charge Stokes for the eleven deaths. "Stokes never faced more serious charges, such as involuntary manslaughter, in the accident that also injured 122 people because prosecutors at the time did not believe they could meet the burden of proof," said a spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general's office. Instead, the prosecutors obtained a grand jury indictment against Stokes in September 2001 for one count of Willful Violation of Maximum Driving Time in violation of Illinois statute 625 ILCS 5/18b-108 (incorporating 49 C.F.R. 395.3) and Willful Violation of Driver's Record of Duty in violation of Illinois statute 625 ILCS 5/18b-108 (incorporating 49 C.F.R. 395.8), both felonies. He was found guilty on both counts in August 2004.
Stokes was sentenced on September 21, 2004 to two years in prison for logbook and hours of service violations. At sentencing, Kankakee County Judge Clark Erickson stated that it was not proven if a lack of rest played a factor in the wreck but that he believed Stokes would have been more able to make safe driving decisions if he had been fully rested.
Stokes was later found to have had multiple violations that required his attendance of traffic school five times in three different counties, which should have resulted in his license being suspended at the time of the wreck. He died in February 2007.
Following the collision, the city of Bourbonnais erected a memorial to the people who died at the intersection of Highway 45 and 102, across from the Olivet Nazarene University campus. On January 17, 2006, the Village Board of Bourbonnais voted to permanently close the grade crossing where the accident occurred. A replacement crossing will be built at another location nearby that will, the Village Board hopes, prevent similar wrecks from occurring in the future.
The manner in which the load of rebar was anchored and secured to the flatbed trailer had nothing to do with the cause of the accident. The accident arose from Stokes’ conduct in ignoring the flashing warning lights at the railroad crossing and attempting to drive through the crossing ahead of an oncoming train traveling at nearly 80 miles per hour, where the resulting collision caused pieces of rebar to be thrown onto the tracks derailing the train.
Prior to one trial, Stokes and his trucking company, Melco, settled with all the plaintiffs.
- "Railroad Accident Report: Collision of National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) Train 59 With a Loaded Truck-Semitrailer Combination at a Highway/Rail Grade Crossing in Bourbonnais, Illinois, March 15, 1999" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. February 5, 2002. Retrieved December 16, 2017.
- "Train wreck toll lowered". CNN. March 17, 1999. Retrieved May 8, 2018.
- "Driver, His Firm Had Safety Problems In Past, Records Show Officials Were Unaware Of Two Of John R. Stokes' Seven Speeding Violations Since '93, They Said". Archived from the original on 10 September 2015. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
- "Truck driver in Amtrak crash guilty of 2 felonies". Retrieved November 23, 2016.
- "Stokes rejects jury trial, opts to face a judge". Retrieved November 23, 2016.
- "Illinois General Assembly - Illinois Compiled Statutes". Retrieved November 23, 2016.
- "Regulations Section". Retrieved November 23, 2016.
- "Regulations Section". Retrieved November 23, 2016.
- "Cop: Stokes drove 14 hours on tragic day". Retrieved November 23, 2016.
- "Driver Sentenced In Deadly Amtrak Crash". WMAQ TV Chicago. September 28, 2004. Retrieved January 19, 2006.
- Deborah Lockridge (March 2000). "Rebuilding the CDL". Heavy Duty Trucking Magazine. Archived from the original on November 13, 2006. Retrieved February 3, 2010.
- "Deadly Railroad Crossing Closed Down". WMAQ TV Chicago. January 18, 2006. Retrieved January 19, 2006.
- "Dowe v. Birmingham Steel Corp" (PDF).
- "DOWE v. NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORP". May 26, 2004. Retrieved November 23, 2016.