CHICAGO – Triple-digit temperatures likely bent a kink into a section of rail and caused an accident in which more than two dozen coal cars flew off the tracks on a northern Illinois overpass and crashed down on a car, killing the couple inside, investigators said.
A final report by the Federal Railroad Administration that was released this month also revealed just how close Union Pacific railroad workers were to potentially stopping the July 4, 2012, accident near suburban Northbrook shortly before it happened. A maintenance worker investigating a signal problem in the area that morning spotted what he thought was an unusual bend in the rail and reported it.
A track inspector with authority to order oncoming trains to halt began working his way toward the site about two hours later but was waiting for clearance to cross a nearby rail intersection when the derailment took place. He was close enough to witness the accident and assist in the response.
“Everyone did what they were trained to do,” said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis.
Speaking of the signalman who first spotted a potential problem, Davis said, “He saw something out of the ordinary and he wanted it verified, but he – not being trained in track – didn’t know the severity.”
The derailment of the fully loaded train hauling more than 19,000 tons of coal to Pleasant Prairie, Wis., sent 32 of the train’s 137 freight cars off the track. Nearly all of them piled up in a spectacular mound directly on top of the overpass, causing it to collapse.
Attorney Burton Lindner and his wife, Zorine, a retired high school guidance counselor, were traveling under the bridge at the time and were killed.
Officials initially said no one was injured, but workers clearing debris discovered a bumper a day later and eventually uncovered the crushed car.
The couple’s sons are suing Union Pacific, alleging the company was negligent and failed to ensure the safety of its trains and track.
The federal accident report said temperatures of 103 degrees likely heated the track and caused it to buckle a few feet before the bridge. A video recorded from the lead locomotive showed the track had shifted, the report said.
The investigation found no other contributing factors.
The report also noted that Union Pacific exceeded federal requirements for track inspection in that area.
Davis said the company has not discussed any changes to procedures.