A SEMI-TRAILER laden with steel killed 11 passengers aboard Amtrak’s City of New Orleans when the driver apparently ignored flashing lights and drove around barriers at a level crossing in Bourbonnais, Illinois at 21.47 on March 15. More than 100 other passengers were injured. All the fatalities were in a Superliner sleeper near the front of the train, despite the fine record of these cars for protecting passengers in accidents. Unfortunately, the impact slewed one of the locomotives around next to the sleeper; as at Silver Spring, Maryland, where 11 also died, and the fuel tank ruptured, resulting in a major fire. Amtrak had not suffered an accident which killed passengers since that incident on February 16 1996.

Operation Lifesaver, the long standing programme to cut level crossing fatalities in North America, has been an outstanding success. Back in the 1960s around 1500 died every year at tens of thousands of crossings, many protected by nothing more than the traditional crossbuck. By 1997, deaths in the USA were down to 448 and injuries to 1458, all in road vehicles and many resulting from cars or trucks being driven into the side of trains. Installation of flashing lights and, more recently, lifting barriers continues apace. In the Northeast Corridor, every level crossing has been eliminated between Washington and New Haven, and the last should have gone between there and Boston by the time Acela Expresses start operating later this year (p239).

The number of US road-rail collisions is still high at 10 a day, though it was more than one an hour in 1981. Given the solid construction of American trains it is rare for derailment to result, but the threat of fire in particular remains, given the indiscipline of road users. The truck driver at Bourbonnais, who was unscathed, had obtained a probationary driving permit because his licence had been suspended for speeding offences.