Sunday marked the 20-year anniversary of one of the worst school bus-train crashes in U.S. history.
On the morning of Oct. 25, 1995, a school bus in Fox River Grove, Illinois, crossed railroad tracks and immediately stopped for a red light at an intersection next to the tracks. What the substitute school bus driver didn’t realize was that the rear of the bus was extending about 3 feet into the path of an oncoming commuter train.
Seconds later, the train slammed into the bus. The impact separated the school bus body from its chassis.
Of the 35 high school students on the bus, five died at the scene, and two more died of injuries a day later. Two dozen other students and the school bus driver were injured. No one on the train was injured.
After investigating the Fox River Grove crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued 28 recommendations to various agencies and associations. Among those recommendations, the NTSB called for guidelines to be developed for the identification of route hazards and for the placement and use of radio speakers on school buses (investigators found that the driver couldn't hear the approaching train because the bus was too noisy).
On the route hazards issue, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) developed a report, released in 1998, called “Identification and Evaluation of School Bus Route and Hazard Marking Systems."
The NASDPTS report calls for an annual review of school bus routes by a person trained to identify potential driving hazards. Also, NASDPTS wrote, school bus drivers should be trained in recognizing potential route hazards and should know how to report them.
The NASDPTS report includes a checklist for identifying potential railroad grade crossing hazards, such as presence of warning devices, sight distance, number and speed of scheduled trains, and characteristics of the road and tracks.
Another key resource for rail crossing safety is Operation Lifesaver. The nonprofit organization recommends these procedures for school bus drivers at highway-rail grades:
1. Slow down, test your brakes and activate your four-way hazard lights about 200 feet before the crossing. (If your vehicle has a manual transmission, downshift before you cross.)
2. Check for traffic around you. Make sure your intentions to stop are clear. Use a pull-out lane if one is available. Flashers, if necessary.
3. Prepare the bus: Put the transmission in neutral, press down on the service brake or set the parking brakes (depending on your district’s policy). Turn off the AM/FM radio and all other noisy equipment; ask passengers for quiet.
4. Stop where you have the best view of the tracks, no closer than 15 feet and no farther than 50 feet from the nearest rail. Check beyond the tracks for traffic congestion, a signal or stop sign. Be certain the containment area across the tracks is large enough to hold the entire bus, plus 15 feet. (Emphasis added.)
5. Open the service door and driver's window. Look and listen for an approaching train in both directions. Proceed only after checking the crossing signals.
6. Go. When certain that no train is approaching on any track, do not hesitate. Cross in low gear and do not change gears while crossing.
With the 20th anniversary of the Fox River Grove tragedy, this week is a fitting time to review rail crossing safety procedures at your operation.
Thomas McMahon is executive editor of School Bus Fleet.