Two years ago, a pickup truck going 40 mph barreled into a railroad crossing gate near the central Illinois town of Chenoa.
Instead of a tragedy, this was a test. Chenoa was one of three sites picked by the Illinois Department of Transportation to try out flexible steel nets meant to keep cars and trucks from driving into the path of a train -- without damaging them or injuring their passengers.
The test worked, but the longer experiment aimed at improving crossing safety along high-speed rail lines was a failure. Now, more than $3 million and numerous repairs later, the state is paying to tear the nets down.
"It's a disappointment for me personally," said Frank Hartl, high-speed rail manager for IDOT. "If you put your time and energy into something, you want to see it succeed, and these things haven't succeeded."
Illinois was the first state to try the dragnets at crossings, and the experiment was being watched by the federal government and partners in a nine-state consortium called the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. That group envisions 3,000 miles of high-speed train lines running from a Chicago hub to Midwest cities including St. Louis, Indianapolis and Minneapolis. Participating states are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.
The state began operating the so-called dragnets at traditional rail crossings along the Interstate 55 corridor near Chenoa, McLean and Hartford in 1999. They were designed to descend on either side of the tracks about 100 feet from traditional crossing arms, stopping cars from driving around them and dragging to a halt those that didn't stop.
While the nets did stop vehicles, they sometimes didn't work in concert with railroad signals, leaving crossings blocked when no train was in sight. The nets also hit a number of vehicles whose drivers did not obey traffic signals.
Hartl said transportation officials had hoped the nets would be low-maintenance, but ended up spending between $5,000 and $7,000 a month at each site on repairs and basic upkeep. That's on top of the $3.6 million the state -- using federal funds -- spent to install and test the three dragnets.
IDOT disabled the nets this spring and hopes to dismantle them by next June.
The idea behind the nets was to keep drivers safe from trains that one day may zoom through the state at 110 mph. Illinois already has begun work on one part of a high-speed rail corridor between Dwight and Springfield.
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